Opinion: Supporting Plain Language Requirement for Petitions and Ballot Questions

The author with other anti-gerrymandering activists outside the Supreme Court in 2018. Photo by Alexandra Day/Day-By-Day Enterprises.

“Establishes the boundaries for the State’s eight United States Congressional Districts based on recent census figures, as required by the United States Constitution.”

That was the wording of the Maryland Redistricting Referendum, Question 5, which appeared on the statewide ballot in 2012.

Based on Grammarly’s readability score on the Flesch reading ease test, the sentence mentioned above is likely to be understood by a reader who has at least some college education. Still, it may not be easy to read.

State Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery) has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 56, requiring that a ballot question shall be written in plain language reasonably calculated to be understood by an individual who has attained no higher than a grade 6 level of reading comprehension.

Kagan’s bill is being heard Tuesday at 2 p.m. in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. A companion bill, House Bill 140, has been introduced by Del. Michele Guyton (D-Baltimore County) and is being heard Wednesday at 1 p.m. in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Question 5??

Question 5 on the 2012 Maryland statewide election ballot asked voters to approve the boundaries for Maryland’s eight congressional districts, as drawn by a five-member Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee and passed by the General Assembly. This measure passed with the support of 64.05% of the voters.

Let me repeat by reading the full text of this measure:

Referendum Petition

(Ch. 1 of the 2011 Special Session)

Congressional Districting Plan: Establishes the boundaries for the State’s eight United States Congressional Districts based on recent census figures, as required by the United States Constitution.

For the Referred Law or Against the Referred Law

If Sen. Kagan’s legislative proposal had been enacted in 2012 or earlier, the language of the Question 5 ballot could have been changed to the following:

A “yes” vote supports the state legislature’s redistricting plan for the boundaries of the state’s eight U.S. Congressional Districts.

A “no” vote opposes the state legislature’s redistricting plan for the boundaries of the state’s eight U.S. Congressional Districts.

Wonder if the majority of the 64.05% “Yes” voters could understand what the 23-word sentence meant. Did these same voters know that the editorial boards of The Baltimore Sun, the Annapolis Capital, the Carroll County Times, The Gazette, The Washington Post, the Washington Examiner, and Washington Jewish Week urged voters to vote “NO”?

United States Supreme Court??

Surprisingly, the controversy over ballot Question 5 was heard during the 2018 hearing on the Maryland redistricting case, Benisek v. Lamone, before the United States Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Glover Roberts Jr. questioned whether the wording of the ballot question was “opaque.”

Justice Stephen Breyer quoted the actual question:

“Are you for or are you against the following text: Establishes the boundaries for the State’s eight United States congressional districts based on recent Census figures, as required by the United States Constitution?”

He then argued, “It doesn’t even tell you there what establishes it.”

After this court hearing, state Del. Neil C. Parriott (R-Washington), who engineered to put the referendum on the ballot, exclaimed, “the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with my initial assessment that the ballot question was unfair.”

Deaf Voters??

Several studies state that the average reading level among members of the deaf community is between the 4th and 5th-grade levels.

That is why I asked former Sen. Norm Stone Jr. (D-Baltimore County) to introduce SB 582 (2014), which would require a notice summarizing an upcoming ballot question that related to congressional redistricting to include the address of a website for voters to view a map of the boundaries of the proposed districts. But the Senate Committee of Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs went silent after the hearing.

I am supporting Sen. Kagan’s SB 56 with an amendment that would lower the reading level from 6th grade to 5th grade to help deaf voters understand.

— HOWARD GORRELL

The writer is a redistricting expert and an advocate for the deaf.