A voter bill of rights should be easy to read

Whenever we start a new project, we hope that what we learn will be used to make election materials easier and more effective for voters. But we don’t often see our work in a state law.

Over the years, we’ve learned how many people have trouble learning about elections, so we were excited to have a chance to do research on how voters get information and take a deep dive into voter guides.

Like many states, California sends out booklets of information about how to vote and what’s on the ballot. With all the  work to create these voter guides and cost of mailing them, we wanted to know if voters could use them. After all, elections information should be easy to read and understand.

At the end of a great project, we worked with our partners at the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund to create a manual of best practices for official voter guides and a series of webinars.

Things really got exciting in March 2015, when a joint committee of the California legislature held a hearing on elections.  Jennifer Pae, from League, testified at that hearing. She shared insights for improving voter information from our research, including how important it is to have voting rights information in plain language. 

“For example, the Voter Bill of Rights can provide useful information, but it must be accessible to voters….In many of the interviews with infrequent voters and new voters, they stopped to read the Voter Bill of Rights completely and carefully. However, they also found it hard to read and asked questions about what it said. A bilingual low-literacy participant stated ‘These are things I need to know…but some of them are confusing.'”

Following this hearing, in April 2015, a California Senate committee approved a bill to ensure that election information is written in plain, accessible, and easily understandable language. According to Senator Tony Mendoza, the bill’s sponsor:

“Citizens deserve clear communications during elections because it is vital that voters understand their eligibility to vote and how they can receive help with polling place problems. Improving election materials by using plain language techniques is common sense.”

The bill paid particular attention to the California Voter Bill of Rights, which is posted in every polling place, provided online in ten languages and American Sign Language, and included in the state voter guide. Secretary of State Alex Padilla is right to say:

“Voters should not be confused about their basic voting rights. Giving all voters and poll workers the Voter Bill of Rights in easy to understand language is a common sense measure that will help elections run more smoothly.”

On September 1, 2015, Governor Brown signed the bill into law.

Update. In mid-December, we worked with staff from the Secretary of State’s office to conduct a community review of the recommended language. In two intense days, a team of us visited downtown government buildings, community center holiday parties, a community college, and a library, getting feedback from 86 people. We made many small revisions to clarify the text of the Bill of Rights, making sure that the language is as clear as we can make it.  The next step will be the Secretary’s announcement of the final language, after they complete reviews with their advisory committees.