2020 ballot measure readability analysis: ballot language is written at an average reading grade level of 17 (first-year graduate school), down from between 19 and 20 in 2018
The average statewide ballot measure in 2020 is written at a reading grade level of 17, similar to the reading level in first-year graduate school. The 2020 reading level is down from between 19 and 20 in 2018, according to Ballotpedia’s annual analysis of the readability of ballot language for the 128 statewide measures across 34 states in 2020.
• The average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for the ballot titles (ballot questions) of all 128 statewide 2020 ballot measures was about 17.
• The average ballot title grade for all measures in a single state averaged together ranged from 10 in Rhode Island, Washington, and Wyoming to 32 in Virginia.
• In 2018, the average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for ballot titles was between 19 and 20, and average state scores ranged from eight to 42.
• Ballotpedia identified 67 measures with a ballot summary that was set to appear alongside the ballot question on the ballot. The average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for the ballot summaries was about 14.
• The average ballot summary grade for all measures in a single state averaged together ranged from 10 in Louisiana and Maryland to 20 in Arkansas.
• The average ballot title grade was highest for ballot titles written by state legislatures (19) and other state boards and offices (18).
• Initiative proponents wrote the ballot language for eight of the measures (in some cases, with help from state officials). The average ballot title grade for those measures was 15.
• Attorneys general wrote titles with the lowest average grade level of 14.
• The average ballot title in 2020 contained about 60 words. In 2018, the average ballot title length was 66 words.
• The 2020 ballot measure with the longest ballot title was Colorado Proposition 118 concerning a paid family and medical leave program. The ballot question had 270 words.
• The states with the shortest ballot titles or questions on average were Florida, California, Iowa, and Alaska; all of these except Iowa did feature additional ballot summaries or explanations.
One hundred and fifteen statewide ballot measures will appear on November 3, 2020, ballots in 32 states, barring further court-ordered changes.
Together with eight pre-November ballot measures, 123 statewide measures will go before voters in 2020. This is 29% less than the average of 173 statewide measures in even-numbered years from 2010 through 2018.
Forty-three of the 2020 statewide measures were put on the ballot through citizen-initiated signature petition drives. There were an average of 59 citizen-initiated measures in each even-numbered year from 2010 through 2018. In 2016 and 2018, there were spikes in citizen initiative activity, with 76 and 68 measures respectively. There were 40 citizen-initiated measures in 2014.
From 1980 through 2014, an average of 54 citizen-initiated measures appeared on the ballot during even-numbered years. From 2008 through 2014, this average decreased to 49.
State legislatures referred 79 measures to the ballot. On average from 2010 through 2018, state legislatures referred 109 measures to the ballot.
There was one automatic referral in Iowa.
Notable topics and trends
Forty-three (37%) of the Nov. 3 measures are on the topics of election policy, marijuana policy, or taxes.
Eighteen measures in 14 states concern election policy, including campaign finance, election dates, election systems, redistricting, suffrage, and term limits.
Voters in five states will decide ballot measures changing their election systems for congressional, state legislative, and statewide offices. Alaska and Massachusetts voters will decide ranked-choice voting initiatives. Alaska’s measure would also make Alaska the first state to adopt top-four primary elections. Courts removed top-four primary and ranked-choice voting general election initiatives similar to the measure in Alaska from the ballot in Arkansas and North Dakota.
Florida voters will decide an initiative that would replace the state’s closed primary elections with top-two open primaries for state offices. Colorado voters will be the first to weigh in on the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC).
Voters in Missouri, New Jersey, and Virginia will decide redistricting measures.
Voters in Alabama, Colorado, and Florida will decide measures designed to change existing constitutional language providing the right to vote to say “only a citizen of the United States,” rather than “every citizen of the United States,” who is 18 years old or older has the right to vote.
Voters in California will decide whether to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary and special elections if they will be 18 by the next general election. Voters will also decide whether to allow convicted felons who are on parole the ability to vote.
Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota will vote on whether to legalize recreational marijuana. Voters in South Dakota and Mississippi will decide medical marijuana initiatives. South Dakota is the first state to vote on both recreational and medical marijuana measures at the same election.
Voters in 12 states will vote on 19 tax-related ballot measures. Ten of the measures address taxes on properties, three are related to income tax rates, two address tobacco taxes, one addresses business-related taxes, one addresses sales tax rates, one addresses fees and surcharges, and one is related to tax-increment financing (TIF).
Committees registered to support or oppose the 124 statewide measures certified for 2020 ballots reported a combined $565.3 million in contributions and $224.9 million in expenditures.
The following five states have the most ballot measure campaign finance activity reported so far:
• California – $316.8 million in contributions
• Illinois – $80.4 million in contributions
• Florida – $28.4 million in contributions
• Colorado – $23.4 million in contributions
• Oregon – $14.1 million in contributions
The most expensive ballot measure of the year, California Proposition 22, is also the most expensive measure in California’s history. The support campaign has received record-breaking total contributions from multiple app-based driver companies, including Lyft, Uber, and Doordash.
Oregon could become the first state to create a program for the legal use of psilocybin mushrooms and to decriminalize all drugs.
Mississippi voters will decide on a new state flag design to replace its last flag featuring the Confederate battle flag, and Rhode Island voters will decide whether or not to remove the words “Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name. Voters in both states decided in favor of the status quo on these issues in 2001 and 2010, respectively.
Get more details and analysis in the September edition of the State Ballot Measure Monthly. The edition covers the final certifications of 2020; the measures that were removed fro the ballot since mid-August; and more analysis of trends, notable topics, and unique measures.
Subscribe to Ballotpedia’s newsletters to see upcoming analysis of the 2020 measures, including our comprehensive reports on signature petition costs, campaign finance, and ballot language readability.
On August 5, the D.C. Board of Elections certified Initiative 81 for the November 3 ballot.
The ballot initiative would declare that police shall treat the non-commercial cultivation, distribution, possession, and use of entheogenic plants and fungi as among the lowest law enforcement priorities. The ballot initiative would define entheogenic plants and fungi as species of plants and fungi that contain ibogaine, dimethyltryptamine, mescaline, psilocybin, or psilocyn. Examples include psilocybin mushrooms—also known as magic mushrooms or shrooms—peyote, and iboga. The ballot initiative would also ask the D.C. Attorney General and U.S. Attorney for D.C. to cease the prosecution of residents who engage with entheogenic plants and fungi.
After verifying a random sampling, the board had concluded that 25,477 of the submitted signatures were valid and certified the measure for the ballot. A total of 24,836 signatures were required to qualify for the ballot.
The campaign Decriminalize Nature D.C. reported filing 36,249 signatures with the D.C. Board of Elections on the July 6 deadline. In Washington, D.C., the number of signatures required for a ballot initiative is equal to 5% of the district’s registered voters. Moreover, signatures from 5% of registered voters in five of eight city wards are required to meet the city’s distribution requirement.
The Washington, D.C. Council approved a bill on May 5, 2020, to allow petitions to be distributed, printed, signed, scanned (uploaded), and mailed to proponents rather than collected in person because of the coronavirus pandemic. Voters still needed to sign physical copies of the petitions. Decriminalize Nature D.C. mailed petitions to more than 220,000 households in Washington, D.C. Nikolas Schiller, the campaign’s field director, said that the campaign ended up receiving about 7,000 signatures by mail.
Oregon voters will decide an initiative to establish a psilocybin program in November 2020. If approved, the initiative would make Oregon the first state to legalize psilocybin. In 2019, voters in Denver, Colorado, approved Initiated Ordinance 301, which declared that the adult use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms were of the city’s lowest law enforcement priorities.
Minneapolis voters will not decide on a charter amendment in November to remove the city’s police department and replace it with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. On August 5, the Minneapolis Charter Commission voted 10-5 to take an additional 90 days to evaluate the proposal.
This effectively blocked the measure from the November 2020 ballot, although it could still appear on a later ballot. The city council’s deadline to add the measure to the November 2020 ballot is August 21. The city council is not able to vote on the measure until the charter commission returns it.
The charter amendment would have:
Removed all references to the city’s police department from the city charter.
Added a section establishing the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, and the director of the new department.
Allowed a Division of Law Enforcement Services within the new department that would have been made up of licensed peace officers and would have had a director appointed by the director of the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.
Under the existing charter provisions, the mayor has authority over the police department and nominates the police chief, who must be confirmed by the city council. The existing charter also requires the city council to provide funding to the police department to provide for “a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident.”
This proposed amendment would have made the city council responsible for establishing and funding the proposed Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention and given the city council authority to establish the Division of Law Enforcement Services within the department. The director of the proposed Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention would have been nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.
Following the killing of George Floyd and the resulting demonstrations and protests, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously on June 26, 2020, to send the proposed charter amendment to the Minneapolis Charter Commission for review. Under the process for charter amendments set by state law, the charter commission must review proposed amendments and make recommendations to the city council. The city council does not have to follow the commission’s recommendation, but cannot vote to send a charter amendment to the ballot until the recommendation is made. The charter commission has a maximum of 150 days to review proposals from the city council.
The charter commission considered its own amendment that would have removed the minimum funding requirement for the police department from the charter. On July 29, the charter commission voted 8-6 against referring it to the ballot.
Charter Commissioner Gregory Abbott said, “[the charter] should not be cluttered up with the policy disputes of the moment. We don’t know what challenges the city will face in 10 years or 20 years or even in 50 years. It [the charter amendment] proposes permanently moving the city’s law enforcement function down to a sub-department two levels removed from supervision by elected officials. The council’s proposal even specifies the professional qualifications of the head of the new department, details more appropriate in my opinion for a zip recruiter ad than for a charter provision. Now these ideas may well be good under the circumstances but they should be enacted as part of an ordinance not included in the charter itself. There is another problem I have with the charter amendment. The proposal radically reduces the power of the mayor and transfer those powers in their entirety to the city council.”
Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison responded to the commission’s vote, “It is our legacy in the US to use voting to decide our future, whether that be by representative democracy or direct democracy. It is not our legacy to use bureaucratic processes to circumvent the people in an attempt to ‘protect’ voters from themselves. That is not democracy. In a democracy, the people decide. But I guess today the Charter Commission decided otherwise.”
Mayor Jacob Frey, who opposes the charter amendment, said, “I look forward to working with Chief Arradondo, my council colleagues, and community to transform the culture of policing in our city in the months ahead. Now it is on all of us to roll up our sleeves and dig into this work together.”
This is not the first time that the Minneapolis City Council has proposed a charter amendment concerning the police department, and the charter commission has declined to expedite its review to meet a general election deadline. On August 3, 2018, the Minneapolis City Council voted 7-5 to send a charter amendment proposal to the Minneapolis Charter Commission that would have repealed provisions in the charter giving the mayor complete control over the city’s police department. The measure would have, instead, allowed rules and regulations for the police department to come from both the city council and the mayor. The charter commission did not make a recommendation to the city council in time for the city council to put the measure on the November 2018 ballot. Instead, the commission ordered a task force to create a report on the proposal. The commission ultimately recommended against the charter amendment in January 2019.
In the weeks after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, nationwide demonstrations and protests were held calling for changes to policing. Officials responded by issuing executive orders and passing legislation to eliminate certain policing tactics, such as chokeholds, and implement new community policing strategies.
Voters in at least half a dozen cities and counties—including San Francisco, Los Angeles County, and Sonoma County, California; King County, Washington; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio; and Portland, Oregon―will decide ballot measures in November concerning law enforcement oversight, structure, funding, policies, and staffing levels. Stay tuned to Ballotpedia for an overview of this ballot measure trend as it develops.
On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 opinion that the application of Article X, Section 6, of Montana’s Constitution (Montana’s Blaine Amendment) violated the free exercise clause of the U.S. Constitution. The majority held that the application of the state’s Blaine Amendment was unconstitutional because it barred religious schools and parents who wished to send their children to those schools from receiving public benefits because of the religious character of the school.
Blaine Amendments refer to language in state constitutions that prohibit public funding for schools or educational institutions run by religious organizations. The language in each state constitution varies. Blaine Amendments are named after an amendment to the U.S. Constitution—sponsored by James Gillespie Blaine—that was proposed but never passed.
Thirty-seven states have Blaine Amendments in their constitutions as of 2020. Louisiana’s Blaine Amendment was repealed by voters in 1974.
In 31 states, the existing versions of Blaine Amendments were included when the state’s most recent constitution or constitutional revision was ratified by voters, which means voters did not vote specifically on the Blaine Amendment but rather considered an entirely new constitution or a larger set of revisions that contained the Blaine Amendment language. In six states, Blaine Amendments were added through specific constitutional amendments, at least three of which were referred to the ballot by constitutional revision commissions.
In Utah and South Carolina, the states’ Blaine Amendments were amended to remove the prohibition against indirect public funding of religious schools, leaving a prohibition against direct public funding.
On July 15, the Minneapolis Charter Commission will hold a public hearing on a proposed charter amendment that would remove all reference to the city’s police department from the charter and add a section establishing the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. The Minneapolis City Council proposed this amendment for the Nov. 3 ballot.
The measure would:
Eliminate charter provisions concerning the city’s police department.
Establish the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention and the director of the new department.
The director of the department would be nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.
Allow a Division of Law Enforcement Services within the new department;
The division would be made up of licensed peace officers.
Its director would be appointed by the director of the Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.
Give the city council authority to establish the Division of Law Enforcement Services.
Currently, the mayor has authority over the police department and nominates the police chief, who must be confirmed by the city council. The existing charter also requires the city council to provide funding to the police department to provide for “a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident.”
Minneapolis City Council members Jeremiah Ellison, Alondra Cano, Cam Gordon, Steve Fletcher, and President Lisa Bender sponsored the proposal.
Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison said, “No singular action is going to undo longstanding systemic oppression, racial oppression. This is one action of many that we need to take on the road to a more equitable and just system that keeps people safe.”
Mayor Jacob Frey opposes the amendment. He argued that the amendment was unclear and that diverting accountability away from the mayor and the police chief and giving authority to the city council was a bad idea. Frey said, “Will we still have police? If you vote for this, are you voting to abolish the police department or is this merely a cosmetic change where you add a bureaucratic layer, you change the name to peace officer and give them different uniforms?” Frey also said, “If this is about me. There’s an election next year.”
Here is a timeline of the events leading up to the charter amendment and how far this measure has progressed:
May 25: Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a Black man, after receiving a call that he had made a purchase with a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd died after one officer, Derek Chauvin, arrived at the scene and pressed his knee onto Floyd’s neck as Floyd laid face-down on the street in handcuffs.
June 12: Sponsors of the proposal gave notice that they would introduce it at the following council meeting.
June 26: The Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to send the proposed charter amendment to the Minneapolis Charter Commission.
While the city council does not have to follow the recommendation of the charter commission, the city council cannot act on the proposal before receiving an official recommendation from the charter commission according to state law.
The charter commission has a maximum of 150 days to review charter amendment proposals from the city council.
The city council must give final approval to the charter amendment by August 21 to put the measure on this year’s ballot. It requested the charter commission to expedite its review.
July 1: The charter commission scheduled the first of two public hearings on the amendment for July 15.
August 5: In response to the request for an expedited timeline, Commission Chair Barry Clegg said that the commission would consider a final decision on the proposal during its August 5 meeting, allowing for a vote by the city council by August 21 if the commission agrees on a recommendation. Clegg said, however, “If we elect to take our additional time, this ballot question will not be on the ballot in November.”
August 21: The deadline for the city council to approve the amendment for the Nov. 3 ballot.
This is not the first time the city council has tried to put a charter amendment concerning the police department on the ballot. In 2018, the Minneapolis City Council voted 7-5 to send a charter amendment proposal to the Minneapolis Charter Commission that would have repealed provisions in the charter giving the mayor complete control over the city’s police department. The measure would have allowed rules and regulations for the police department to come from both the city council and the mayor. The charter commission did not make a recommendation to the city council in time for the city council to put the measure on the 2018 ballot.
Click here for the timeline of that 2018 charter amendment proposal.
As of July 1, 882 ballot initiatives and veto referendums were filed with state officials for circulation during the 2020 election cycle. Initiatives and referendums have been filed in 23 of the 26 states with a statewide process. Washington, Colorado, and Missouri had the highest numbers of filings at 229, 193, and 151, respectively. California has the next highest with 46.
Twenty-four ballot initiatives and five veto referendums—29 total citizen-initiated measures—have been certified to appear on 2020 ballots. Proponents of 19 other citizen-initiated measures submitted signatures, which must now be verified by state officials.
From 2010 through 2018, an average of 761 initiatives and veto referendums were filed for even-numbered election years. An average of 59 initiatives were certified during those cycles, which amounted to an average petition success rate of 7.8%. In 2016 and 2018, there were over 50% more initiatives and veto referendums filed—1,069 and 947—as the median of 616 since 2010. There were 76—which was a decade high—and 68 certified citizen-initiated measures in those years respectively.
Missouri, Washington, and Colorado featured the highest average initiative filings from 2010 through 2018 with 185, 129, and 103, respectively, and average success rates of 1.7%, 3.6%, and 4.9%. California had an average of 95 initiative filings and an 11% success rate.
Among states with a statewide ballot initiative process, the following states had the highest average success rates for ballot measure petitions from 2010 through 2018:
North Dakota – 50% and an average of eight filings per cycle.
South Dakota – 45% and an average of eight filings per cycle.
Alaska – 38% and an average of five filings per cycle.
Maine – 35% and an average of 6 filings per cycle.
The following six states featured the largest number of statewide initiatives and veto referendums on the ballot. They are listed with the average success rates of petitions and the average number of filings per cycle from 2010 through 2018:
Oregon – 9% and an average of 63 filings
California – 11% and an average of 95 filings
North Dakota – 50% and an average of eight filings
Colorado – 5% and an average of 103 filings
Washington – 4% and an average of 129 filings
Arizona – 6% and an average of 27 filings
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On Saturday, East Baton Rouge Parish voters approved a measure to renew an existing property tax levy to fund the East Baton Rouge Parish Law Enforcement District. Voters approved the measure 52.54% to 47.46%.
The measure renewed the property tax at the rate of $373 per $100,000 of assessed property value until the end of 2030. District officials estimated the special property tax renewal would generate $16.3 million in revenue per year, which amounts to about 17% of the sheriff department’s operating budget.
Voters renewed the tax for 10 years in each of the last three decades.
• In May 2010, 84% of voters approved the tax renewal.
• In October 2000, 65% of voters approved the tax renewal.
In November 2020, Louisiana voters will decide a constitutional amendment designed to resolve a conflict between Governor John Bel Edwards (D) and State Treasurer John Schroder (R) regarding the state’s unclaimed property revenue. If approved, the amendment would do the following:
• Create the Unclaimed Property (UCP) Permanent Trust Fund, with the fund earmarked for payment of claims made by owners of abandoned property
• Allocate funds above administrative costs received due to the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act of 1997 (or its successor) to the UCP Permanent Trust Fund until equal to the state’s estimated unclaimed property potential liability
• Allocate any additional unclaimed property receipts above the state’s potential liability and any investment revenue from the UCP Permanent Trust Fund to the state’s general fund
• Authorize the treasurer to invest up to 50% of the UCP Permanent Trust Fund in equities
The Uniform Disposition of Property Act was passed in Louisiana in 1972. From 1972 to 2019, the state treasurer collected $1.3 billion in unclaimed property—such as abandoned bank accounts, IRAs, and 401(k) accounts; unclaimed pensions, Social Security benefits; unredeemed U.S. Savings Bonds; and uncollected insurance proceeds and utility deposits. From this, $463 million was remitted according to claims by the owners of the formerly unclaimed property. The remaining revenue was transferred to the state’s general fund, except for a certain amount transferred to the I-49 Leverage fund. In the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, State Treasurer John Schroder did not transfer $32.5 million in unclaimed property revenue above the amount remitted to claimants to the general fund, saying the money did not belong to the state and should be kept in case its rightful owners come forward.
In February 2020, Gov. Edwards sued Schroder, requesting the court to order the treasurer to transfer the $32.5 million to the general fund. On May 26, 2020, District Court Judge Richard Moore, III, ruled in favor of Gov. Edwards. Schroder said he would appeal the ruling. Edwards and Schroder agreed to a deal, however, that included (a) Schroder releasing the $32.5 million and an estimated $25 million for the following fiscal year and (b) this constitutional amendment to establish a permanent fund for unclaimed property revenue starting in July 2021.
Senator Michael Fesi (R) introduced the constitutional amendment as Senate Bill 12 on June 4, 2020. On June 25, 2020, the state House passed an amended version of Senate Bill 12 in a vote of 95-3, with six absent. On June 26, 2020, the state Senate concurred with the House amendments in a vote of 35-0, with four absent.
This amendment joins six others put on the November 2020 ballot by the Louisiana Legislature during the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions. From 1995 through 2019, Louisiana voters decided 189 constitutional amendments. During even-numbered years, there were 121 constitutional amendments. An average of 10 measures appeared on even-year statewide ballots, with the total number ranging from four to 21. Louisiana voters approved 75% (141 of 189) and rejected 25% (48 of 189) of constitutional amendments since 1995.
On June 25, 2020, Nebraskans for Responsible Lending submitted over 120,000 signatures for its initiative that would limit all fees charged by payday lenders to an annual interest rate of 36%. Nebraska law currently allows delayed deposit services licensees to charge a fee of no more than 15% of the amount loaned and limits total loan amounts to $500 and loan terms to a maximum of 34 days. In Nebraska law, payday loan services are called delayed deposit services.
Across the country, 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted a 36% annual interest rate cap for payday lenders. In 2018, a similar measure was approved in Colorado.
In Nebraska, the number of signatures required to qualify an initiated state statute for the ballot is equal to 7% of registered voters as of the deadline for filing signatures. According to the June 2020 voter registration report, there were a total of 1,216,692 registered voters in Nebraska at the time of the state’s signature deadline. This means that a total of 85,168 valid signatures are required to qualify this initiative for the ballot, which means Nebraskans for Responsible Lending needs a signature validity rate of approximately 71% for the initiative to qualify for the ballot.
Because of the unique signature requirement based on registered voters, Nebraska is also the only state where petition sponsors cannot know the exact number of signatures required until they are submitted. Nebraska law also features a distribution requirement mandating that petitions contain signatures from 5% of the registered voters in each of two-fifths (38) of Nebraska’s 93 counties.
The state legislature has referred two constitutional amendments to the November 2020 ballot. The signature submission deadline for 2020 Nebraska citizen initiatives is July 3.
From 1996 through 2018, there have been 73 statewide measures on the ballot in Nebraska. Thirty-nine (53%) were approved. Of the 73 total measures, 17 were ballot initiatives. Eight of the 17 ballot initiatives (47%) were approved, and nine (53%) were defeated.