You be the judge: Is somebody trying to rig a judicial ballot question?

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Questions persist about a question you’ll see on the ballot next Tuesday.

The concept is quite simple. Judges in Pennsylvania currently must retire at the age of 70. Should the constitution be amended to push that mandatory retirement age to 75?

But getting a clear and concise question on the ballot is apparently not so simple. Critics, which include two former state Supreme Court justices, say the ballot question is intentionally deceptive.

“What our experiment showed is that the wording mattered a lot,” said Berwood Yost, director of Franklin and Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research.

Yost tested three versions of a question about the retirement age of judges. The first was the wordy version that ran in the primary election. It mentioned that judges now must retire at 70 and asked if that should be expanded to 75.

The second version, which will be on the Nov. 8 ballot, only asks if the retirement age for judges should be 75, with no mention that they currently must retire at 70.

Yost created a third question, clearer and less clunky than the primary version. It included that the current retirement age is 70 and asked if it should be changed to 75.

“It’s clear that adding the information about the retirement age makes a big difference and increases the chances that this will not pass,” Yost said.

Yost polled the three questions. The two versions that tell voters that judges must now retire at 70 failed to pass.

The version that is set to run on Nov. 8, which doesn’t include the current retirement age and only asks if judges should retire at 75, passed overwhelmingly.

“It’s likely that what people know about judges is that they serve for life as they do on the U.S. Supreme Court. When you provide that additional piece of information that the current age is 70, it really does change for many people their calculus, and they’re much less likely to support it.”

Ron Castille, former Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, is less diplomatic.

“The way it’s worded is deceptive and an improper ballot as far as I’m concerned,” said Castille, who said he supports the idea of a 75-year retirement age but doesn’t like the process. Castille insists that legislative Republicans are “pulling the wool over voters’ eyes” to control the outcome.

“This thing (ballot question) would lose unless they (legislative leaders) could change the wording to the deceptive way it’s worded right now,” Castille said.

Senate president Joe Scarnati is one of those Republican leaders Castille’s talking about.

“We felt the question was difficult to understand,” Scarnati said.

Scarnati supported a lawsuit to change the wording from the primary to the general election and remove all references to the current retirement age. Scarnati says it’s just simpler to leave it out.

“These ballot questions have gotten obnoxiously difficult to understand,” he said. “It’s a straight, easy question now. Shall judges retire at 75, yes or no?”

Not so easy, according to Yost.

“In my view, it leaves out vital information that could change people’s response to the question,” Yost said.

“I think it’s incumbent upon the people writing these questions to get it right,” he added. “They should be writing good questions because this is an exercise in pure democracy. That’s what it should be and I think if we don’t word these things well, we’re inviting people to have doubts about the process, and we don’t need that.”

The current chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Thomas Saylor, is a Republican and would be forced to retire next year. Unless the question passes, then he’ll get five more years.

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