By Berwood Yost

Ballot initiatives are among the purest exercises in democracy we have. In Pennsylvania, legislators place a policy question on the ballot and citizens vote on whether they favor or oppose it. Clear and simple, right?

Apparently not.

In Pennsylvania, what should be a clear and simple exercise in citizen democracy instead shows just how far removed policymakers are from understanding how everyday citizens think.

Here is the wording of an April 26 ballot initiative as proposed:

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices of the Supreme Court, judges, and justices of the peace (known as magisterial district judges) be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years, 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?

Some state legislators are challenging this wording because they are concerned that voters might believe the initiative will affect members of the U.S. Supreme Court. The state lawmakers are suggesting that the wording be changed to this:

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to require that justices, judges, and justices of the peace be retired on the last day of the calendar year in which they attain the age of 75 years?

Whichever legal arguments are used to settle this dispute, none of them is going to solve the ballot measure's main problem: It's a bad question.

Bad questions produce bad answers, answers that are the result of how the question is written rather than the result of how people think or feel.

Instead of relying on legal arguments to solve this dispute, the legislature should rely on what survey researchers have learned over the past 50 years about writing good questions. Survey researchers actually know a great deal about how people respond to questions and about the best ways to write them so that people can accurately answer them.

The most basic rules of question construction are commonsensical: Form a question that is easy to understand, uses everyday language, uses words with clear and specific meanings, and is as short as possible.

Unclear questions that use terms we don't understand, that lack specific meaning, and that otherwise cause confusion will influence our answers. People cannot link the ideas in a question to the ideas they understand or consider important when the question is badly written.

Pennsylvania's proposed ballot initiative on judicial retirement fails to follow these simple rules. The suggested legislative revision is a bit better but does not use everyday language. It also omits important information that could change how people think about the question: namely, that judges currently must retire when they turn 70.

Omitting information that would change how people answer the question means the question is incomplete. In this case, people who already know the current retirement age for judges will understand the question differently from those who do not.

To write a good question is to understand what people think about when they answer it. The question itself can determine the answer.

Of all the lessons survey researchers can teach, the most important is this: Questions should be tested before they are widely used. Testing provides two important bits of information:

What questions people think they are being asked.

What kinds of information the question is making them think about.

If testing is a standard best practice in survey research, in which the stakes are usually much lower than in making constitutional amendments, why isn't it standard best practice in something as vital as putting a referendum on the ballot?

Failing to write a good ballot question is about much more than writing good questions. It also drives cynicism and encourages apathy among voters. At best, citizens will ask, "What political reason did they have to ask such a bad question?" At worst, this failure gives citizens yet another reason to doubt the credibility and competence of our elected officials.

Berwood A. Yost is the chief methodologist for the Franklin and Marshall College Poll, director of the Floyd Institute's Center for Opinion Research, and director of the Floyd Institute for Public Policy Analysis.