[Image courtesy of flickr user stonehouse]
More specifically, the authors took state ballot language for initiatives from 1997-2007 and scored it using the Flesch-Kincaid scale, which assigns a grade level as a proxy for readability.
The results are somewhat surprising. Pew created an infographic of the results – and if you click through you’ll see that every single state’s ballot language exceeds the average U.S. 8th grade reading level – and over 60% required a grad-school reading level or higher. Indeed, four states (NM, MN, CO, SC) require a reading level higher than a doctorate(!) to understand.
Lest you cluck your tongue at the state of the American educational system, remember that for most voters – even that tiny handful those with multiple doctorates – the subject matter of initiatives is outside their everyday experience, and so you want the ballot language to “stay out of the way” of the substance so that voters can understand what they’re being asked and choose accordingly. This is not unusual; many states require certain documents (e.g., insurance) to adhere to an 8th grade reading level for the same reason.
In other words, readability – i.e., the ease with which an individual can navigate written language – is just as much a part of the science of usability as layout and visual design, subjects I touched on last week.
Achieving readability is harder than it looks; state statutes and legislative language often create barriers by imposing impenetrable language which election officials and ballot drafters are powerless to change.
Fortunately, Flesch-Kincaid readability is easy to measure – I just scored this post using Microsoft Word (instructions here) and discovered that it’s written at just above a 12th grade level. That kind of information could be helpful to an election office pleading with policymakers to ESCHEW OBFUSCATION!
Thanks to Pew for finding and sharing the Reilly/Richey article. The lesson for the election community is clear – don’t be afraid to take a red pen to your ballot language before voters take a pen to their ballots.