Midterm Elections: Do You Actually Know What You’re Voting For?

The 2018 U.S. midterm elections are on Tuesday, November 6th.  Voters must elect governors and local mayors, and make decisions on state legislature and amendments during this time. Every two years, they elect House of Representatives members and one-third of Senators.

On National Voter Registration Day, September 25th of this year, over 800,000 people registered to vote. This was an increase from the 2016 levels of 771,321 people. Historically, since the 1840s, voter turnout has been lower in midterms than in presidential elections.

There are many speculations about why midterm election voter turnout is low. Among those, is the theory that some people do not vote because of registration issues. Some registered voters cannot vote on election day due to barriers, such as ID laws or criminal records. For example, about 10 percent of adults in Florida cannot vote due to a felony conviction.

Some voters also have transportation issues. The more inconvenient it is to access a polling station, the more unlikely it is that residents will vote. This year, it is widely known that Uber and Lyft are offering rides to polling locations. Additionally, the absentee ballot – which began during the Civil War, to allow the soldiers to vote for their home jurisdiction, and which has been in usage since 1932 – has made voting more convenient.

So, if there’s no longer a convenience or accessibility issue, why is there still low voter turnout? One possible reason could be the bystander effect, where individuals feel as if their votes do not have an impact; another reason could be that the language of voting is inaccessible.

Voting for the elected positions is relatively straightforward. As long as you have had the time and resources to investigate each person, it is only a matter of choosing a name. This year, for example, Florida voters have the opportunity to vote on 23 positions for office. If Floridians decide to research every person on the ballot, they will have to acquaint themselves with 54 people and their platforms.

When it comes to amendments and referendums, the jargon-y fun begins. Let me preface this by saying that I am a graduate student in public policy, as well as a Florida voter. What this means is that I have the ability to analyze a policy decision’s impact on the welfare of the state. Nonetheless, each time I look back on the ballot, I struggle to understand the purpose and forsee the future impact of these amendments.

In a prior midterm election, Florida was very concerned about Amendment 1: Solar panels. The wording of the ballot was deceiving: it asked voters to decide whether people should be allowed to use solar panels on their homes. What the ballot failed to mention, was that this was already a legal right for Floridians. By approving this amendment, an existing monopoly would receive more power over utilities.

This year, I have a few more qualms, mainly to do with Amendment 9. Amendment 9 is a fun one that essentially asks: “do you ban offshore drilling and vaping indoors”? Although this amendment is on the shorter side, with only two sentences, I gave it a double take. With this amendment, I am given two options (or three if I abstain): do I ban offshore drilling and vaping, or do I not ban offshore drilling and vaping.

I take issue with this amendment for a few reasons. Most obviously, I cannot identify the link between drilling and vaping – and neither can many Floridian voters, most likely. One proponent said that the connection relates to clean water and air – but I digress. Why do I have to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to both topics at once?  In addition, the decision is misleading for voters. By voting ‘no’, many voters may assume that offshore drilling and vaping are allowed. What voting ‘no’ actually means, is that the provision will not be included in the constitution as per se illegal.

Florida is not alone in its confusing and inaccessible amendments. In Pennsylvania, for example, one of its 2016 ballot initiatives was written:

“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?”

The above provision does not clearly communicate that the age limit in question is for Pennsylvania’s judiciary, and not for the Supreme Court.

The expectation that voters decipher amendments is unfair for the 50 percent of U.S. adults that can’t read a book written at the eighth-grade level. Only nine percent of jurisdictions give background information on the ballot provisions; most voters must decipher and decide on an amendment without any additional help or resources in the polling booth.

Year after year, nothing changes, and the ballots remain inaccessible. Is the difficult language deliberate? Are they undermining amendments within a bill so that it will not pass? Or are the amendments simply drafted by people who are out of touch with average voters? If you want to increase votership, allow people to vote. Create amendments that don’t require the help of Sherlock Holmes. Draft provisions that are in plain, accessible language. Until this happens, the trend will continue: votership will remain low.