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In Pa. ballot questions, a grammatical crisis could lead to a public policy crisis | Angry Grammarian

In trying to help voters understand why they should vote no, the Wolf administration created an even more tangled mess.

An application for a mail ballot in last year's election in Pennsylvania.
An application for a mail ballot in last year's election in Pennsylvania.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The Wolf administration probably thought it was being clever. But in trying to turn voters against two ballot questions in Tuesday’s primary, the administration might have made the questions more likely to pass. Oops.

After the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature muscled two boneheaded ballot questions into the election, the Wolf administration — which writes what voters actually read — added “clarifying” language to nudge the questions toward rejection. Trouble is that the added language turns the questions into grammatical nightmares, making them virtually impossible to parse — and therefore, ironically, more likely to get rubber-stamped by justifiably confused voters.

» READ MORE: 2021 primary ballot questions: No to partisan bickering, yes to fairly funding fire departments | Endorsement

You can’t blame the administration for trying. The ballot questions take decisions about ending a disaster declaration away from the governor (currently a Democrat) and give them to our legislature (currently Republican, and likely to stay that way for a while). Practically speaking, that’s dangerous: Science decisions are now made by people like Dr. Rachel Levine — so qualified that President Joe Biden tapped her to be assistant U.S. health secretary. These changes would instead empower people like State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who doesn’t believe in climate change, and State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who doesn’t think masks prevent the spread of COVID-19, to make scientific calls for you.

That’s scary enough that the administration had to do something. But instead of helping, it made the sentences barely readable.

Witness Question No. 1: “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration — and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration — through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?”

Woe unto anyone who tries diagramming that monster.

» READ MORE: Your guide to Pa.’s 2021 primary ballot questions

The administration added extraneous adverbs, like unilaterally, and nested adverb phrases, like therebydisapproval, the latter of which is over-gerunded and kind of dangling. Pursuant to that declaration might be wildly dangling, but it’s impossible to know exactly what it’s modifying. At 69 words, the question blows past readability guidelines. The administration also capitalized Commonwealth and Governor, which is just gross.

It gets worse in Question No. 2: “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?”

Beyond the adverb nightmares, this one throws in unbalanced semicolons, which are confusing on a good day. It’s an overstuffed 74 words, and it’s missing an and after the last semicolon, which makes that semicolon sad. The upshot is inhibited readability.

Other than eliminating resign-to-run, which voters have rejected twice in the last 15 years, our ballot questions almost always pass. Pennsylvanians who don’t understand a question are likely to say “eh, sure, whatever” and vote yes: Witness the overwhelming approval of routine bond questions, despite Philadelphians’ ignorance about city spending. Voting yes is the default, and research shows people are more likely to agree to any default option — regardless of whether they actually want or understand it.

It’s a shame, because the consequences for our next disaster are huge. The ballot questions should be rejected as bad science — let’s hope that in trying to help voters understand why, the Wolf administration didn’t let a grammatical crisis lead to a public policy crisis.

The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and sentence diagrams to

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