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Brexit Ballot Wording: How the Question Is Posed Matters

The devil is in the details.
Image: A British newspaper
A woman reads a newspaper Wednesday on the underground in London.RUSSELL BOYCE / Reuters

Will the voters of the U.K. decide to leave the EU on Thursday?

It may just depend on who's asking.

Subtle differences in the phrasing of a question or the response options can have significant effect on polling results. Specific wording on a ballot has stirred debates on issues ranging from legalizing marijuana to same-sex marriage. One ballot question ended up in court in California following disagreements over the language used.

Complete Coverage: The Brexit Referendum

"Frames have consequences," Gail Fairhurst, author of "The Power of Framing" told CNBC. "Mentioning only one side of the debate implicitly marginalizes the other side, treating it as a less than equal alternative."

Social scientists often refer to it as framing theory and have researched how something is presented will influence the choices people make about how to process the information.

British voters will cast ballots Thursday in what has been dubbed the "Brexit" referendum.

The question on the ballot is stated, "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"

The options will read:

  • Remain a member of the European Union
  • Leave the European Union

But the wording of the question wasn't always this simple.

The original language would have prompted a simple "yes" or "no" response, following the question, "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?"

Complaints were made over the question being biased or confusing and then changed to a less potentially-insinuating version. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron accepted a recommendation to change the wording after the phrasing was tested on potential campaigners, academics and language experts.

But framing on the issue like Brexit, according to Fairhurst — also a professor of communications at the University of Cincinnati — reaches far beyond simply the language on the physical ballot.

"The recent event of the murder of Jo Cox have probably overshadowed the framing of the original question," Fairhurst said. "What was now an economic and nationalist debate has now become personal, as she may well be seen, or framed, as a martyr to the cause."

Cox — a Labour party lawmaker who was pro-EU — was killed last week.