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Plain Language Makes a Difference When People Vote

Janice (Ginny) Redish, Dana Chisnell, Sharon Laskowski, and Svetlana Lowry

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 5, Issue 3, May 2010, pp. 81 - 103

Article Contents


Voting is both a right and a responsibility for U.S. citizens. However, if people do not understand how to use the ballot or what their options are, they may not succeed in casting their votes to match their intentions.

In 2002, the United States Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to improve voting systems and voters' access to ballots. HAVA gives the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce) responsibility for providing technical support to develop voting system standards. NIST, in turn, realized that research and best practices would be needed to set standards for language, design, usability, and accessibility of voting systems.

The study we are reporting in this article is part of NIST's efforts to provide research-based support for standards on ballot language.

What were we trying to learn?

In this study, we sought answers to three questions:

What is plain language?

A document is in plain language when the users of that document can quickly and easily find what they need, understand what they find, and act appropriately on that understanding. (For more details, examples, and resources about plain language, see http://www.plainlanguage.gov/ and www.centerforplainlanguage.org.)

Here are eight of the most critical plain language guidelines for ballots:

Where did the traditional and plain language instructions come from for this study?

In previous work for NIST, the first author, Ginny Redish, a linguist and plain language/usability expert, reviewed more than 100 ballots from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The traditional language for Ballot A came from one or more of those ballots.

In that earlier project, Dr. Redish also analyzed the gap between the instructions on the ballots she reviewed and best practices in giving instructions (Redish, 2005). She then developed a set of guidelines for writing clear instructions for voters, focusing on the issues that arose in her earlier analysis (Redish & Laskowski, 2009). The plain language guidelines for Ballot B came from this document, which was originally presented to NIST in 2006.

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