Nate Birt: Unclear ballot language and federal health care

Nate Birt

In 1919, Congress proposed extending the right to vote to women.

What a concept. Here was the proposal:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

It was a simple statement. It made a powerful — and needed — change in American life.

Ninety years later, though, it seems appropriate to suggest that Congress consider a new and equally transparent amendment — a mandate that Rube Goldberg-esque ballot language be disabled into the plain and unabashed fashion of that aforementioned law.

The need to address this problem sadly became clear Tuesday, when Missourians went to the polls to vote on, among other issues, Proposition C.

Citizens were asked to vote “yes” if they wanted the Missouri statutes amended to block federal health-care legislation passed by Congress earlier this year. A “no”?vote indicated that the statutes remain unchanged.

Missourians overwhelmingly voted “yes” on the issue, so it would seem there was a collective opinion in a specific direction.  Unfortunately, the Proposition C ballot language was to some — including this editor, who made a point of re-reading the proposition before blackening a bubble — rather counterintuitive. Let’s break it down.

“Shall the Missouri Statutes be amended” -- if you oppose the federal health-care plans, your first reaction might be, “No, I don’t want Missouri to bow to federal health-care legislation and our fine state’s law. I’ll vote no.”

But wait!

“to deny the government authority to penalize citizens for refusing to purchase private health insurance or infringe upon the right to offer or accept direct payment for lawful healthcare services?” — OK. So now, some might understand the ballot as stating, “Do you want to enact Proposition C, effectively asking that Missouri’s laws be changed to keep federal health-care legislation away?” So now you might agree to vote yes.

In a July 25 article, Amos Bridges of the Springfield News-Leader wrote that voters there had mixed views on whether the proposal was understandable.

It is an affront to our system of governance that reasonable people can’t understand the wording of a ballot issue in the same way.

The issue, after all, is the point. The wording certainly is not.

Susan King Roth of Virginia Commonwealth University states in an exploratory study titled “Human Factors Research on Voting Machines and Ballot Design”: “An examination of sample ballots from across the U.S. reveals a lack of clarity in instructional language or the display of instructional text in a way that fails to attract attention. ... Voting under the pressure of time and confronted with an unfamiliar system and ballot display, it is not difficult to imagine that a voter could be confused by these instructions.”

Confused, indeed.

The voters have spoken. If only all ballot issues would do so, clearly.

Contact news and online editor Nate Birt of the Boonville Daily News by e-mailing