Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

The post in which I don’t talk about things that are not amendments

Posted by Noel Sanchez on November 4, 2008

Today is Election Day! Exciting!

But you know what’s not exciting? Having to read each amendment multiple times because they make little sense. Here’s one example from the sample ballot in Florida.

Amendment 1:

Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to delete provisions authorizing the Legislature to regulate or prohibit the ownership, inheritance, disposition, and possession of real property by aliens ineligible for citizenship.

I had an argument over what voting Yes on this amendment would mean. Would a Yes mean that you are against aliens owning property or for it? I had to have it explained to me by a news article, which is fine; that’s what the newspaper is for.

But why can’t they just word these so the average person can understand them? Even if a voter is familiar with the amendment, and knows which way he wants to vote, he might get confused whether to mark Yes or No.

The problem is in the multiple negative verbs. An amendment to delete provisions that prohibit an action. It’s only mildly confusing when you take out some of the nouns that junk it up, but it’s really confusing when you read it all together.

Instead, why can’t the ballot read something like this explanation, taken from an article in the Independent Florida Alligator:

Florida’s constitution allows the state Legislature to “prohibit the ownership … and possession of real property by aliens ineligible for citizenship.” This amendment would remove that clause.

It’s simple and straightforward, but even with the rewrite, many voters might still misinterpret it. The Miami Herald, for example, had this article about how using the terms “aliens ineligible for citizenship” might make people think the amendment is about illegal immigration. Also, it refers to a provision that has never been enacted or enforced. Yeah, that might be good to know.

Would a little context hurt? I know the ballots are written to be as objective as possible. Adding some of that context could inject bias, but would using some more commonly used words and simple language kill them? Don’t they have some kind of focus group they test these things on?

I suppose voters are supposed to both be informed and be able to speak ballot when they hit the polls.

Happy voting.

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