Strategic Communications #15: Ballot Language is Crucial

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(This is the 15th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

What is the most important piece of information for voters on ballot initiatives?  Is it knowing who the sponsors are?  Is it knowing who the endorsers are?  Is it knowing if there are any tax or cost implications?  Is it knowing whether the issue is related to partisan politics?  Is it knowing whether the issue is a vote of conscience?  Is it knowing that the issue is related to complex public policy and should be left up to the legislature to decide?

While all of these aspects are important considerations for voters, they all have something in common regardless of the issue they address.  That is, they are all contingent on the most important piece of information for voters.  Give up?  It’s the ballot language.  The ballot language is the single most important piece of information because it is the one bit of information that every voter is guaranteed to see.  Get it right and your chances of success dramatically improve.  Get it wrong and you may be destined for failure.

For example, if your ballot initiative language is potentially confusing, you may need to test both the ballot language and the concept in your benchmark poll.  We once found that the difference in support between a ballot initiative’s language and concept was close to 10%.  This obviously increases your education curve and can put your campaign at a competitive disadvantage.  It also allows your opposition to raise further doubts about the effects of your proposal.

So important is the ballot language that it is the first issue the opposition will likely challenge through decision-making authorities and/or legal channels.  Therefore, you need to make sure you get the language right before you go down the ballot initiative path.  Otherwise, your journey might be over before it even starts.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for The Saint Consulting Group, email  phone 781-831-2494

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