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Words that can make or break a campaign.

1/30/2015
When voting for candidates in the ballot booth, citizens see a list of names. Just names. By then, they’ve more than likely come to “know” their choices, at least high on the ballot, in ways that are often hard to fathom. They start at the top with the “most important” candidates and associate each name with its baggage, appropriate or not, and continue to battle their way down the ballot. The list of names has gotten long by the time they get to state races. Local races.

“I like her name, it sounds friendly.”
“I think I’ve heard of him.”
“I like the name ‘Johansen.’ Reminds me of a friend I had in college.”

By the time voters get down to the ballot to a popular referendum or ballot issue, their knowledge of the candidates has been spent and their sense of gravity with it.

Suddenly, here’s this paragraph. Ballot language.

It’s up for grabs—up to the campaigns—to see to it that voters are voting for or against the issue and not the ballot language. Alas, not to be, because, if they haven’t decided already, and many haven’t, the ballot language will enliven or kill the issue, right then and there, with probably 15-20% of the voting public. Enough to make or break the legislation.

In a recent campaign, right up and until election day three polls were tracking a ballot issue. Each poll was administered by a well-regarded firm, but the results varied widely. Polls 1 and 2 had it winning with a decent lead; the third had it losing by a considerable margin. How can this be?

Poll 3 read the ballot language, verbatim, all the way through before asking for a conclusion. The last line of the ballot language was a killer, to someone who was listening on the phone.

The issue passed, and by about the margin projected by the first 2 polls, because, obviously, when reading the ballot, voters didn’t make it to the last line. If they had, the issue probably would have failed!

Those involved in ballot issue campaigns or popular referenda may have little to say about ballot language, often crafted by an A.G. staffer. But there are ways to influence the final language, and proponents/opponents need to pay attention.

For more information about the polls mentioned in this article, and how the language dynamic so strongly impacted poll results, click here to send us a message.

*So, who remembers Mister Mxyzptlk?