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.”

McTighe’s solution: If Summers considers any mention of the religious exemption too mentally taxing for the average voter, at least build the question around the phrase “marriage license” to make it clear that this is a civil matter, not a religious one.

Former Secretary Diamond agrees.

“I think ‘necessary detail’ trumps simplicity,” Diamond said. “I think we have to include everything in these questions that is important – and (the religious exemption) is part of the question.”

McTighe’s other problem with the proposed question is that by simply asking voters if they “want to allow same-sex couples to marry,” Summers left the referendum devoid of any legal heft.

“It’s not just a state of mind – we’re talking about Maine law here,” noted McTighe. “And I think that’s an important distinction.”

So how about this: Do you want to let same-sex couples in Maine get marriage licenses?

It has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 10 and a reading-ease score of 46 – a little tougher than Summers’ Grade 7 query, but hardly a heavy literary lift for most if not all Mainers.

Besides, it’s a lot more digestible than this mouthful that appeared on the statewide ballot last November: Do you want to reject the section of Chapter 399 of the Public Laws of 2011 that requires new voters to register to vote at least two business days prior to an election?

That, you’ll recall, was the people’s veto of a new law that did away with Election Day voter registration in Maine. A law that Summers, for one, fought hard to get passed.

For reasons he’s yet to explain, Summers had no problem putting that clunker on the ballot — despite its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 15 and its reading ease score of 49.

Nor, come to think of it, did Maine voters have a problem reading that question, understanding it and voting 60 percent to 40 percent to scuttle the law that Summers himself claimed was needed to preserve the integrity of Maine’s elections.

Maybe we’re smarter than he thinks.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]