HARRISBURG - Words - or lack thereof - make a difference.

That's the takeaway from a poll on next week's referendum asking voters if they approve raising the retirement age for Pennsylvania judges from 70 to 75. The ballot question's wording has already been the subject of a drawn-out legal fight - now awaiting a federal judge's decision on whether he will invalidate Tuesday's vote.

Former Supreme Court Justices Ronald D. Castille and Stephen A. Zappala and Philadelphia lawyer Richard A. Sprague argue the question was altered at the last minute by the GOP-controlled state legislature to hoodwink voters into raising the retirement age.

The critical information they removed: that judges are already required to retire when they turn 70. Without knowing that, the three petitioners contend, voters may believe they are establishing a judicial retirement age for the first time, rather than giving judges an extra five years on the bench. Lawyers for the Republicans say the language was changed to avoid confusion for voters, not sow it.

Their protracted fight inspired Berwood Yost, a pollster and director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin and Marshall College, to survey voters using both versions of the referendum.

He polled 813 registered Pennsylvania voters - 395 Democrats, 316 Republicans, and 102 independents - between Sept. 28 and Oct. 2. The poll had a 4.8 percent margin of error. He said he relied on a method that uses groups of people identical in all ways, except for the wording in the question they receive.

Those asked the retirement-age question with the amended language - the one they will see on Tuesday's ballot - approved it by a nearly 2-1 ratio.

Voters who were read just the original version of the ballot question defeated it, 55 to 45 percent.

And when Yost offered other participants a third version of the question - his own, using more explanatory language - it lost by an even bigger margin.

The version on the ballot: "Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court, judges, and magisterial district judges be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years?"

The original language had the additional clause ". . . instead of the current requirement that they be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 70?"

Yost did not conduct the survey for Castille, Zappala, and Sprague, but after hearing about his findings, they included them in documents filed to the federal court.

Drew Crompton, the top lawyer for Senate Republicans, said he believes voters have the information they need to make an informed decision.

"Words matter, I agree," he said. "But I think our question is clear and clean."

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani has given both sides until mid-November to file written arguments in the matter.


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