Saturday, December 7, 2013
By Bill Nemitz email@example.com
Are you having difficulty understanding this question?
Don't feel bad. The first seven words of this column register a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 14, meaning you have to be a college sophomore to truly grasp what you just read.
Or how about this question: Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?
Goodbye college, hello Grade 7.
As you read (and hopefully comprehend) this, Secretary of State Charlie Summers' inbox is fast filling up with comments from Mainers who think his proposed wording for this fall's same-sex marriage referendum is a) nice and simple, b) much too simple or c) simply unacceptable.
Time will tell if the feedback makes any difference. Once the public comment period ends on July 16, Summers will have 10 days to issue his final wording for the November ballot.
In a recent interview, Summers revealed that there actually is a science to this sort of thing. It's called the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test.
"I know, talking to people who have been here a long time, that they always run (ballot questions) through these things to make sure they are as clear and concise as possible," explained Summers.
Developed for the Navy in the 1970s by educator-scientists J. Peter Kincaid and Rudolf Flesch (author of "Why Johnny Can't Read"), Flesch-Kincaid has been used to fine-tune ballot questions here in Maine at least since Bill Diamond ran our elections as secretary of state back in the early 1990s.
"We wanted to keep the reading level at a level that could be understood by most people who go to the polls," Diamond, now a Democratic state senator from Windham, said Tuesday. "We were trying to do it around a seventh- or eighth-grade level."
Now some Mainers, admits Diamond, "would probably see that as an insult." But he insists it wasn't meant that way.
"It's meant to be looked at so you can understand it the first time through," he said. "We did not want to make (any given ballot question) a test of whether people could understand it."
Which brings us back to Secretary Summers and his proposed same-sex marriage question: Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?
The Flesch-Kincaid calculator assigns Summers' question a Grade Level 7 and a "reading ease" score of 65. (The higher the reading ease score, the easier the reading.)
Now let's look at the question originally proposed to Summers by proponents of same-sex marriage: Do you favor a law allowing marriage licenses for same-sex couples that protects religious freedom by ensuring no religion or clergy be required to perform such a marriage in violation of their religious beliefs?
Ouch. Flesch-Kincaid gives that a Grade Level 21 (post-post graduate degree?) and a reading-ease score of 5.
"We're flexible on the wording," conceded Matt McTighe, campaign manager for Mainers United for Marriage. "But we just feel first and foremost that the question needs to be accurate and it needs to further reflect everything that's in the law."
McTighe has two specific nits to pick with Summers' watered-down version.
First, he said, it makes no mention whatsoever of the language in the proposed statute to exempt any and all religions and clergy members from having to host or perform same-sex marriage ceremonies against their wishes.
By including no mention of that in the ballot question, McTighe argues, Summers opens the door to same-sex marriage opponents who claim inaccurately that passage of the law inevitably will erode their religious freedom.
McTighe has a point: In an interview last weekend with a Christian radio station in Topsham, Carroll Conley Jr., executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine and a leader of Protect Marriage Maine, warned that in countries "that are very much like us," pastors "actually have been put in jail" simply for "lovingly preaching to their flock" about same-sex marriage and other "sexual immorality."
(Continued on page 2)