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Minnesota amendment wording can affect votes, experts say

It’s up to the court to decide which titles will appear before the voters
REUTERS/Darren Hauck
It’s up to the court to decide which titles will appear before the voters in November.

Does a ballot question’s title influence how it fares at the polls?

That’s a major controversy in Minnesota politics this week, and the answer appears to be “yes.”

According to some experts, small changes in wording that may appear inconsequential can seriously affect how voters perceive a constitutional amendment.

Secretary of State Mark Ritchie this week raised eyebrows when he renamed a second proposed constitutional amendment, the Photo ID measure, on the same day that Republicans filed a lawsuit contesting his revision of the marriage amendment’s title. More litigation is likely.

With all the political maneuvering over the amendments’ wording, it’s easy to forget that the furor actually could be because the language used really does matter in how voters perceive the ballot questions.

Small words may make big difference

“There’s a large literature in the social sciences on how wording affects political judgment, and many studies show that people are often very sensitive to seemingly small changes in wording,” said Jon Krosnick, a professor of communications, political science and psychology at Stanford University.

“Therefore, these re-wordings of the title of each amendment have the potential to alter people’s understanding of the issues at stake and to alter their votes,” he said.

In addition, Republicans contend that the new titles are far more than subtle changes. Some, such as Sen. Sean Nienow, have accused Ritchie of choosing specific words that would discourage voters from supporting the amendments.

The secretary of state’s office declined multiple requests for comment.

Ritchie announced on Monday that he was changing the Photo ID amendment’s title to: “Changes to in-person & absentee voting & voter registration; provisional ballots.” The original title, passed by the Legislature in April, is “Photo identification required for voting.”

In late June, Ritchie renamed the marriage amendment to read: "Limiting the status of marriage to opposite sex couples." Its original 2011 title is "Recognition of marriage solely between one man and one woman."

Supporters of the Photo ID title could challenge the name in court, the same route marriage amendment proponents said they would take.

Monday’s announcement means both November ballot questions are in litigation.

Ritchie’s actions under attack

In recent days, amendment supporters repeatedly have attacked the secretary of state’s actions — and motives.

“[Ritchie’s] gone off the rails,” said Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority, a pro-Photo ID group, reacting to the name changes. “He’s no longer even putting on a veneer of being impartial.”

Mark Ritchie
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie

McGrath said he’s concerned that an average voter scanning the ballot looking for a question related to “Voter ID” or “Photo ID” might miss the new title and simply ignore the question. In Minnesota, not voting on a constitutional amendment is the same as a “no” vote.

“The question is phrased very well, but the [new] title is confusing, and if you’re scanning the ballot, that title is going to put people off,” McGrath said. “It might not be a large number of people, but some number of people are going to see that, and say, ‘What’s that mean?’ and just leave it alone.”

Photo ID opponents, however, say voters would take into account a wider variety of factors than just the amendment’s title.

Greta Bergstrom — a spokeswoman for TakeAction Minnesota, part of a larger umbrella campaign against Photo ID — said voters will hear plenty about the measure long before they reach the polls.

“By the time Nov. 6 rolls around, people in Minnesota are going to have heard from both sides on this and make an informed decision, taking everything into account,” she said.

Experts agree that the higher-profile marriage amendment is likely to seem less ambiguous to voters. The emotionally charged issue is attracting big money already, months before Election Day, and well-laid ground campaigns are gearing up on both sides.

Morris: Voter ID title more important

Minneapolis pollster Bill Morris of Decision Resources said the lesser-known Photo ID amendment is more likely to see voters relying on title alone to identify it.

“That’s the one which is going to be the least publicized because you don’t have the major funding sources coming in on it as of yet, so the title there could play a key role,” he said. “The title there really seemed to me to be an overreach by Ritchie in terms of actually deliberately making that much more negative.”

Morris also argued a point that many of the experts share: Uninformed voters seeing ballot questions for the first time at the polls could rely heavily on their titles in determining how to vote.

“Many people who will vote in any election are not actually highly attentive to politics and highly informed,” Krosnick said. “Many people vote reading the wording of an amendment for the first time in the voting booth or when they receive an absentee ballot. So in that sense, a significant number of votes will be cast by people who are forming an impression of an amendment at the time that they’re casting their vote, and so a title can certainly create a spin in their minds that can affect their vote choice.”

Some of those factors appear to have played out in North Carolina, where voters passed a similar but even more restrictive marriage amendment in May.

Constitutional amendments there don’t appear on the ballot bearing a title and instead only come in the form of a short description.

The North Carolina description, which pollsters noted confused voters across the state for months before the election, read: “Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

Public Policy Polling noted the confusion among voters in early May, just before the vote.

“Lack of voter understanding about how far reaching the amendment is continues to be the biggest obstacle for those hoping to defeat it,” according to a May 1 PPP report, which noted that 40 percent of voters still didn’t understand the amendment banned both gay marriage and civil unions.

“I definitely think that the confusion had an impact on the vote,” said Stuart Campbell, executive director of Equality North Carolina, a statewide LGBT rights association. “We constantly talked about how poorly written and vaguely worded this amendment was, and that a lot of people were confused about it, so we tried to point that out as often as we could.”

Morris draws the connection from North Carolina to Minnesota, which appears to have a clearer amendment question.

Now it’s up to the court to decide which title will appear before the voters in November.

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Comments (28)

Unprecidented

Has any other Secretary of State ever changed the titles of ballot questions, or is Ritchie breaking new ground in abusing the office?

No new ground. State statute

No new ground. State statute assigns the authority to title ballot questions and prepare the ballots to the Secretary of State.

Let me put the question a different way...

Has any Secretary of State ever changed the title of a ballot question before?

In The Past

For a long time, around 100 years, Minnesota Legislatures did not give any title to proposed constitutional amendments; it was left to the SoS office. Only the last few proposed amendments were given titles by the Legislature. In those cases the SoS chose to adopt the titles.

So no, titles were not changed in the past, largely because there were no titles to change. Maybe we should return tradition.

Just call it "Don't Vote for This!"

Take something as serious as our constitution and try to amend it with something that is proven not to be a problem and the result would only serve 1/2 of the Minnesotans' is absolutely ridiculous. It is up to the courts to decide the title, but it is up to the voters to massively reject the amendment. When are the republicans going to start working for all Minnesotans?

George Soros

was correct with his assumptions when his Secretary of State Project was formed and funded in 2006. Putting a reliable secretary of state in office in charge of the ballot would be a very useful tool for the party.

It certainly worked well for

It certainly worked well for George Bush in Florida (2000) and Ohio (2004), which were the results of the original GOP project.

Ritchie is doing his job

As has been noted before, Secretary of State Ritchie is doing the job he was elected to do. The Minnesota House and Senate write and vote on the ballot questions while the Secretary of State prepares the short title which appears on the ballot.

From the Minnesota House research staff:

"The secretary of state, with approval of the attorney general, prepares a short title to identify each amendment on the ballot. The ballot question specified by the legislature appears under the title. The text of the constitution as it would appear if amended is not printed on the ballot."
(see: http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/ss/ssconamd.pdf )

It is easy to understand why authors, who have a vested interest in the passage of an amendment, don't get to write short title. If they did, the 2006 "Phased in Dedication of the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax to Highways and Public Transit" amendment might have ended up titled "I Like Puppies".

The MN House and Senate tried to have it both ways this year. They wanted to write the question and the ballot title. Our current system of checks and balances doesn't allow for that.

Thank you for that cite

That's a very important and valuable piece of information that needs to be highlighted everywhere this is being discussed.

Wake Up Jim

For God's sake. Wake up! This is political activism by Ritchie to confuse and bamboozle the voters in November so these amendments won't pass. That IS NOT the job of the Secretary of State.

David Koch

was correct when he funded ALEC, but must we continue to listen to the right wing whine and whine when things don't go their way? Secretary of State Ritchie is an honest and honorable man and that must be why the right hates him so.

He rewrites two amendments to

He rewrites two amendments to deliberately make them confusing to the voting public and you call him an honest and honorable man???? Rachel, you're ideological bias is a bit obvious. This is the same Mark Ritchie who found a way to find a bunch of ballots in favor of Franken during a recount, and it included a county with more votes than it had registered voters dear. So much for honest and honorable.

waste of time

It is amazing that the state owes school districts money and we are wasting time and money on this ballot issue. The Minneapolis Business Journal did an unscientific survey and the business community is overwhelming against this amendment including the likes of General Mills and Carlson Companies. Why can't the 'pro business' Republicans get over this and do the real business of the state educating children and creating jobs

School districts will probably have to wait

Governor Dayton Vetoed a sizeable down payment on the K-12 debt. They will probably have to be patient until after Dayton is removed, or pray for a GOP veto-proof legislative majority.

Fiscally irresponsible Republican strike again.

When ever an irresponsible spender sees any amount of money they feel the need to spend it. That's what we have with Republicans, irresponsible children who would rather put the state a risk by spending emergency funds rather that close tax loopholes on their corporate benefactors to raise needed funds. What they were proposing was like an individual using one credit card to pay off another, eventually the bill comes due and you have to pay. Its the same irresponsible behavior Timmy Pawlenty practiced left us deeply in debt.

Since ALEC

Essentially wrote the ballot question, the republicans felt a need to copy the title as well. Too much work otherwise. They just failed to research and read that pesky state statute.

Not sure

I'm not sure what the amendment proponents are trying to accomplish with this lawsuit. The law clearly states that the Secretary of State gets to title constitutional amendments. Althought the wording chosen by Ritchie is gently leading towards his (assumed) preferred outcome, is there anything that is completely incorrect about it? I would guess that outright misinformation would be the only grounds for the court to strike this down. On a side note, it's about time that the Democrats play a little hard ball. Republicans pull stunts like this as a matter of course.

What they are trying to accomplish . . . .

is muddying the waters and confusing the voters, as is their usual practice.

That's why it's essential - whenever and wherever this subject comes up - to point out that Minnesota State Statute specifies that it is the job of the Secretary of State to provide a title for amendments. Mark Ritchie is not overstepping his bounds, and whenever anyone tries to tell you he was, they need to be educated as to the content of the state statute.

The Republicans will avoid bringing up this "little" detail, so we must be very vigilant about doing so.

Hmmm . . . how many times has

Hmmm . . . how many times has Mr. Ritchie used this "power" awarded to him by the state prior to this Pat? And since the courts are hearing the arguments presently, perhaps you've jumped the gun on the state statutes interpretation.

John,Just when I thought an

John,

Just when I thought an honest liberal posted something you went and let me down. You admit that Ritchie's wording is geared toward a preferred outcome (first liberal who commented to do so), then you ask, "Is there anything incorrect about this?" Ritchie's job as secretary of state is not to side with democrats, but to represent all Minnesotans best interest and to GUARANTEE FAIR ELECTIONS. A simple straight forward amendment on the ballot achieves that. A confusingly worded amendment does not.

Democrats complain

that republicans are guilty of suppressing the vote because they insist that only legal citizens be allowed to cast a ballot. If anything, they're guilty of suppressing illegal votes, for which we should all be thankful.

But by purposely making the ballot language false and ambiguous, Ritchie knows that many thousands of people will skip that ballot measure, and no vote is the same as a "No" vote.

By using the language "Changes to in-person & absentee voting & voter registration; provisional ballots" Ritchie is purposely misrepresenting the core purpose of the amendment which is knowingly and purposely suppressing legal votes. For that reason alone he should resign for violating the public trust.

When he loses in court, here's hoping the judge makes the same suggestion.

It comes out

You wrote "the core purpose of the amendment which is knowingly and purposely suppressing legal votes".

Well, you finally admitted it . . . . . . . . .

Republicans complain

and complain. But Ritchie won't lose in court because he has done NOTHING wrong. The goal of the proposed Republican amendment is to limit access to legal voters. Everyone knows it. All you can say about Ritchie is that he is purposely and honestly representing the core purpose of this shameful amendment. When he wins in court the Republicans can hang their heads in shame.

If the goal of the amendment

is to "limit access to legal voters," why is it shameful? You want illegal voters, apparently.

Parsing is everything

Legal voters is good.

Limiting the access of those legal voters to the electoral process is bad.

We do need an amendment

The state Constitution needs to be amended so that it requires something like 3/4 of both houses to force an Amendment onto the ballot. That way we wouldn't get cry baby, end run amendments like the two we got, by a legislature that couldn't override a Governor's veto. If they couldn't muster a veto override, they shouldn't be able to simply write an amendment on simple majority vote.

Now the Ammendment Questions

Accurately and better describe just what the people will be voting on.

Transparency is good. If only the majority of the populace knew that they were written by ALEC.

And making it harder for people to vote - and register to vote - is simply un-American. This from the party that will wave the flag at and for anything whenever it suits their purpose. These kind of election shenanigans we see in Russia and South American countries. Think about it.

What's the essence?

Several states are implementing or have implemented voter id laws. The ability of the folks to decide this issue depends on their understanding of the question they are voting on. What seems to be missing here is the requirement of a plain language/common sense litmus test for the amendment. The courts could then actually offer a remedy. If a reasonable person can't gleen the effect of the proposal from the title then there is a problem.