I love reading. Which comes in handy for me, being in the word business.
Some people hate it, though. Just hate it. But I tell them, “Oh, you just haven’t found the right thing to read – something that’s really well-written and interesting.”
They sure won’t find that on Richmond County’s March 6 special election ballot.
Ballots are poor examples of good writing – or, if you like, good examples of poor writing. Notice I didn’t say thorough writing.
AS PROOF, WHAT follows in italics is the ballot question about the Richmond County Board of Education’s special-purpose sales and use tax. Voters will have to plow through this on Tuesday:
“Shall the special 1 percent sales and use tax for educational purposes currently imposed in the Richmond County School System be reimposed commencing upon the expiration of the current 1 percent sales and use tax and continuing for a period of time not to exceed 20 consecutive calendar quarters for the raising of not more than $225,000,000 for the purpose of providing funds to pay or to be applied toward the cost of acquiring, constructing, installing and equipping new school buildings and facilities and other buildings and facilities useful or desirable in connection therewith, additions to existing schools, including without limitation new classroom space, and athletic facilities for physical and general educational purposes, adding to, renovating, removing, repairing, improving and equipping existing school buildings and other buildings and facilities useful or desirable in connection therewith, acquiring textbooks and technology hardware and equipment in connection with the foregoing, acquiring, constructing, installing and equipping acquiring school buses and other vehicles for the safety, security and maintenance of the school facilities and equipment and buildings and facilities for the repair and maintenance thereof, acquiring, constructing and equipping safety structures and facilities useful or desirable in connection with any of the foregoing, acquiring the necessary property and rights in property therefor, both real and personal, demolishing existing buildings and facilities located on school property that are no longer useful for public school purposes, to pay capitalized interest on the general obligation debt referred to below and to pay or reimburse the expenses of the Board of Education necessary to accomplish the foregoing, including the expenses of the Board of Education incurred in connection with calling the election and imposing the sales and use tax, and to the extent funds are available therefor, the construction of a new elementary school and the construction or renovation of performance auditoriums at existing schools? If the reimposition of the special tax is approved by the voters, such vote shall also constitute approval of the issuance of general obligation debt of the County Board of Education of Richmond County in the aggregate principal amount of $142,055,000 for the above purpose.”
Did you catch all of that? Did you catch any of that?
I asked Logan Wheeler to take a look at the ballot question. She lectures in English at Augusta State University and directs the school’s Writing Center. She helps students become better writers.
I’m paraphrasing. What Ms. Wheeler did say was that whoever wrote the question “ignored audience and purpose.
“THE AUDIENCE here is the general voting public, and the writing needs to be accessible to a layperson,” she said. “The ballot is full of legal jargon, and while legal professionals are used to this style of writing, the rest of us aren’t; therefore, it can be confusing and overwhelming for the general reader.
“The purpose of the writing is to present information for a vote; however, if the information in the text isn’t clear to the voters, then the voters can’t do their job.”
I surely agree. I mean, I’m not asking for an election ballot to read like a “Dick and Jane” book (“See taxpayers run”). But is it too much to ask to get a ballot not fluently transcribed into legalese?
California is famous for these kinds of ballots. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reinforced that in an interview with The Sacramento Bee in January:
“Every time I vote in California, and the whole referendum process, I really have my reservations about it,” she said. “I think I’m an informed voter, and I sometimes have to read the measures six or seven times, and then sometimes I still don’t understand them.”
Rice holds a Ph.D., belongs to Phi Beta Kappa, is a classically trained pianist and speaks four languages. If she gets confused by ballot questions, what hope do the rest of us have?
You want to know why ballot questions are so confusing? It’s the law.
Pete Fletcher explained it to me. He’s the attorney for the Richmond County school board, and he’s sympathetic. He thinks ballot questions can get ridiculously confusing, too.
But Georgia’s constitution spells out exactly how such a sales-tax ballot question can be worded. If you don’t spell out everything you could possibly spend that tax money on, a local government could be challenged in court for using the money for unspecified purposes.
SO APPARENTLY that’s one of the ways that taxpayers’ money is being protected – behind a wall of words that can put you to sleep faster than warm milk.
Why not include a shorter question that most voters can digest, but keep the wordy question for legal purposes? Couldn’t we do that?
Sure, Fletcher said. It likely would take another constitutional amendment, though.
And we know how long those can take.
Until then, I’ll save you some time. Here’s the above ballot question, translated:
You know that 1-cent sales tax for schools you’ve been paying for the past 15 years or so? It funds improvements to school buildings and equipment. Should it be renewed? Yes or no?
See? Was that so hard?