Are Minnesota voters capable of understanding simple questions?

When I suggested on Twitter this week that the flap over the title of two controversial constitutional amendments on November’s ballot suggested that both sides of the debate think voters are too uninformed to actually read the question, a few pols said the issue is about the powers of the executive branch vs. the legislative branch.

Folks may believe that, but a MinnPost assessment today betrays the claim.

Jon Krosnick, a professor of communications, political science and psychology at Stanford University, tells MinnPost that voters can be influenced by the wording…


“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.”

(update to clarify 7/13/12 11:01 a.m.) – When you vote on a constitutional amendment, you don’t actually see the amendment on the ballot. You see only the question about the amendment. For example, here’s the amendment for voter ID, and here’s the amendment for the same-sex marriage ban)

It’s true that the number of people we think hang on every word of political coverage is far smaller than the amount of coverage would suggest. Over the years, our Select A Candidate traffic has shown a huge spike the day before elections.

And some Minnesotans — judging by recent recount examinations — aren’t particularly adroit at filling out and understanding a ballot.

Still, it’s hard to believe a person eligible to vote in Minnesota can’t figure out what this question is asking:


“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013?

or this question…


“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota?”

When Minnesota voters approved the Legacy Amendment in 2008, they had to rely on this title:

Clean Water, Wildlife, Cultural Heritage, and Natural Areas.

But you didn’t hear a lot of people complaining after its overwhelming passage, “but I didn’t know my taxes were going to go up.” Why not? Maybe they’re not as clueless as some people think.

Maybe they read the question, which was much more complicated than either of the two above.


Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate funding to protect our drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve our arts and cultural heritage; to support our parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore our lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater by increasing the sales and use tax rate beginning July 1, 2009, by three-eighths of one percent on taxable sales until the year 2034?

That was a tough one, what with those multi-syllable words and all, but the voters of Minnesota did just fine.

But back to the challenge ahead.

Minneapolis pollster Bill Morris of Decision Resources said the lesser-known Photo ID amendment title is more likely to sway people how to vote in November.

For anyone who has any faith in the democratic process and the ability of people to govern themselves, that’s impossible to believe. But Morris is a smart guy and he makes a good living understanding the Minnesota voter. Assuming he’s correct, the biggest problem with the November ballot may not be either one of the questions or the title of each.

By the way, is it worth telling the voters yet that if they’re just too confused by all of this and decide not to answer the question, that’s a “no” vote?

  • bsimon

    The wording of questions can have a significant impact on how they’re answered. The parties that lobby for such ballot initiatives have an interest in passing those initiatives & construct the questions accordingly. Using the legacy amendment as an example, the question is phrased using very positive imagery – saving & protecting our assets. The negative of adding a tax is saved for the end, almost an afterthought. The legislature knew what they were doing in constructing the question thusly – who could be against clean water? Putting the tax first would likely have significantly affected the canal tally.

    Sec Ritchie, in changing the question text for this year’s initiatives, has likely influenced the outcome significantly.

  • matt

    There is an expectation that citizens can do their taxes without assistance, the questions are no harder than preparing a State income tax return.

  • Bob Collins

    // Sec Ritchie, in changing the question text for this year’s initiatives, has likely influenced the outcome significantly.

    There are two separate issues on the questions of language in the controversy. One is the TITLE of the question that will appear on the ballot. The other is the actual wording of the question on the ballot.

    Opponents of the Voter ID have sued over the language on the amendment. That is presently before a court. Ritchie did not defend the question as passed.

  • Cat

    “Sec Ritchie, in changing the question text for this year’s initiatives, has likely influenced the outcome significantly.” Except that Secretary Ritchie did NOT change the question text for either proposed amendment. He changed the titles — or headlines, if you prefer.

    As Bob Collins points out, the text of the Photo ID amendment question is the subject of a separate legal challenge — not because anyone changed it, but because the challengers believe it does not provide enough information about what the amendment will actually do to Minnesota’s election process, and what kind of picture ID will be required of voters.

  • BJ

    Years of working on campaign makes me like this

    //”Many people who will vote in any election are not actually highly attentive to politics and highly informed,” Krosnick said.

    Or what we called “the average voter”. There is not a person reading this blog that is an ‘average voter’.

  • Pete

    It’s not that these questions are hard to understand. It’s that they don’t do what they say they’ll do, and are deceptive by design. They are written in a way that polls best.

    For example, the so-called “voter ID” amendment question makes no mention of provisional balloting or who will pay for it, or the “substantially equivilent” verification process which will either eliminate same day registration or (less likely) all verification of voter eligibility with registration, nor does the question mention that only government issued IDs can be used, i.e. no valid student IDs like in other states.

    It’d be like asking “Do you like babies?” and then finding out you were voting to ban abortion.

  • Bob Collins

    The Legacy Amendment question said nothing about the role of the Minnesota Historical Society in parcelling out cultural grants, not the role of the Sams Outdoor Commission. Should it have?

    To continue the exercise, how should this one have been worded?

    “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to dedicate

    revenue from a tax on the sale of new and used motor vehicles

    over a five-year period, so that after June 30, 2011, all of the

    revenue is dedicated at least 40 percent for public transit

    assistance and not more than 60 percent for highway purposes? “

    Then, of course, there’s this classic…

    “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to affirm that

    hunting and fishing and the taking of game and fish are a valued

    part of our heritage that shall be forever preserved for the

    people and shall be managed by law and regulation for the public

    good?”

  • Bob Collins

    //There is not a person reading this blog that is an ‘average voter’.

    I’m inclined to be flattered on behalf of the entire NewsCut community, but I’m forced to ask my favorite question:

    How do you know this?

    If I read your tone correctly — and there’s no guarantee I am — it seems to confirm that politicians and their staffs have little real regard — and almost no faith in — the “average voter.” So, they actually DO think they’re stupid?

  • BJ

    How do I know this…..

    over 150 campaigns in the last 10 years.

    // So, they actually DO think they’re stupid?

    Stupid isn’t the right word, but …

    Not the candidates (mostly). Staffers and Consultants have to understand that most voters don’t educate themselves. Like the quote said ” not actually highly attentive ”

    I’d have to track down the research so I’m going off the cuff, 80% of voters only know 1 thing of a list of 5 things about the non-presidential candidate they vote for: Name, perceived Party, perceived Race/Ethnicity, perceived stance on an issue, and one other I can’t remember (gender?). The rest know two or more things and we call them educated voters. It’s why Name ID is a big deal in polls.

  • Jon

    Voter ID needs top be covered better by the media the marrige amdment is taking the spotlight well off the waste of tax payer time and money that is the voter id amendment.