Lessons for a first-time voter: Use the CliffsNotes®

Opinion by Thomas Gill
Oct. 29, 2020, 9:30 p.m.

For the first time in my 25 years of life, I find myself casting a ballot this year. Aside from the confusing mixture of shame and excitement this brings me, I hope to vote with intent and thoughtfulness. Cliches abound about the importance of voting this year, including claims from both parties that this is the most consequential election in our country’s history. With this added pressure, it seems critically important to deeply understand the issues at hand more so than who supports them. 

As a graduate student, the only thing I have (somewhat) mastered in life is taking exams, so I use an old trick of the trade as I open my ballot envelope: start with the easy questions. I peruse titles and find one proposition which seems intuitive enough: California Proposition 18. For those unfamiliar, this proposition is about allowing 17-year-olds who will be 18 by the time of the upcoming election to vote. As I read over the summary of the measure and the pros and cons, I try to consider the complexity of each argument, developing a few questions as I go:

1) Have similar efforts elsewhere improved voter participation and/or ‘civic engagement’?

2) At 17, can we fully understand the measures being proposed and which factors strongly impact how we vote at that age?

The most impactful vote I was casting at 17 was for homecoming royalty and I can’t say I was particularly thoughtful about that. I’m not even sure who I voted for, which leads me to realize I have no idea how to answer the second question above. 

Fortunately, this voting business is open-note, so I take to the internet to get some more information. One resource I find helpful is Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan encyclopedia of political information, including current ballot measures. The site offers a wealth of information about who supports and opposes any given measure, its fiscal ramifications and how the measure got on the ballot, among other things. Coincidentally, I found some information there which can help me answer my second question in a much broader context than I originally intended. Neglecting a lesson I should have learned in graduate school, I jump into the proverbial rabbit hole.   

For every proposition, Ballotpedia provides a Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Level (FKGL) score for both the title of the proposition and the proposition summary. This score is meant to indicate how difficult a passage is to comprehend. Though an exact definition is not given, it is intended to specify the grade level (12 indicating a senior in high school) at which a voter would need to be to understand the proposition summary. This is great. Though the FKGL metric may be inherently flawed (its only parameters are sentence and word length) it will give an idea of how many propositions a 17-year-old might concretely understand in a given year.

Lessons for a first-time voter: Use the CliffsNotes®

For 2020, the FKGL scores for propositions considered in California are summarized above. First, for the score to be relevant, it must correspond to text 17-year-old Californians will actually read, thereby impacting their vote. For California propositions this year, reading the entirety of every measure would total over 150 pages of reading at, on an unweighted average, a 15th grade (junior in college) level. At best, that’s like asking voters to read the first 17 chapters of The Republic by Plato for no credit. Let’s be honest: nobody did it in philosophy 101 and they aren’t going to do it now. On the other hand, using the FKGL metric for the title of the proposition alone seems not to give enough credit to voters — I think most people at least tried to skim the CliffsNotes® before class, so they’ll probably read the summary of the ballot measure, not just its title. Accordingly, the FKGL score for the summary seems like a sensible metric. Looking at the data itself, nearly all scores for the proposition summaries are above 12, indicating that at least some college education is necessary to comprehend the text.

 Already we have an issue which extends far beyond the question of 17-year-old voters: If all but one proposition requires some college education to understand, how is the average person expected to make an informed decision on these items? And this is just about understanding the information explicitly stated in the measure: the subtext on the impact of a given proposition can be enormous and understanding its potential ulterior effects can be nearly impossible.

Now realistically, degrees and/or college education may not be suitable indicators of an individual’s ability to comprehend a ballot measure. After all, at the start of what the FKGL system might call 21st grade, I find myself engrossed in the complexity of each proposition and its consequences, either struggling to understand the measures or being overcome by their ambiguity. Worse yet, questions flood my head about how conveying this information impacts voter decisions, especially as a function of their education level. I agree that voting is especially important, but even our founders stipulated that only “wherever the people are well-informed [can] they be trusted with their own government.” It is one thing to have nonpartisan information physically accessible but another for it to be mentally so. If it is so difficult (and time intensive) for me to decide on a single proposition, I am left wondering, how do other people vote?

Admittedly, I am thoroughly in the rabbit hole now. This has less to do with 17-year-old voters and more to do with how I am going to figure out a way to systematically complete my ballot and how others do the same. However, the answer to the latter is readily available both in life experience and formal study: people vote by party. Look no further than the ‘vote blue no matter who’ slogan of the Democratic party for evidence that this is not only accepted in partisan politics, it’s encouraged. Ironically, a central argument against Prop 18 is that 17-year-olds are almost always under the tutelage of parents and teachers, influences from which they likely will not deviate in making voting decisions. How different is identifying with a partisan group and always voting along their lines?

I don’t mean to say that siding with a political party is mindless or juvenile. Many of my friends have done so through the careful consideration of the issues at hand, for which I applaud them. In the United States, identifying with a party may even be necessary to cast a vote in some elections. Still, I think it is easy to become complacent once you have established your political identity. In the upcoming election, people should revisit these identities: do the values and voting of the party still coincide with your own? If they differ on a few issues, will you stray from the party norm in casting your ballot?

In trying to understand and complete my first ballot, I have not yet succeeded. I have, however, established the principle of how I am going to vote, and it’s written with one idea in mind: political partisanship should be predicated on voting decisions, not the other way around. If, after considering the nonpartisan information available, I notice that I happen to consistently vote with one group and not the other, perhaps I will register with them. Still, I intend for my voting decisions to always be based on independent thought and information, rather than on party lines. Even if you miss some of the subtext on occasion, isn’t it better to read the CliffsNotes® and try to engage with the discussion questions than to copy and paste someone else’s answers?

Contact Thomas Gill at tgill3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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