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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


This section covers two types of recommendations:

Recommending ballot language

The United States does not have a single uniform ballot, not even when there is a federal election. Instead, federal contests are put together with state, county, and local contests into ballots that may differ for each voting precinct. Local election officials create those ballots, following state and local laws. They create the ballots for their specific voting technology (DRE, optical scan, paper and pencil, and so on). They may have to create several versions to accommodate different technologies, for example for in-person voting and mail-in voting.

Thus, we cannot create a model ballot that all local election officials can use. Instead, in the rest of this paper we give our overall recommendation and a set of guidelines for accomplishing it. We have also created Ballot "C"—our Ballot B revised to alleviate problems participants had even with the plain language ballot in our study. Sixteen of the pages of Ballot C, representing all the different types of pages in the ballot, are available at http://www.nist.gov/itl/vote/upload/Ballot-C.pdf.

The following are our recommendations:

Because local election officials constructing ballots are going to continue to make decisions on every page of every ballot for every election, all ballots need usability testing. The best way to guard against disaster in an election due to ballot design or language is to have a few actual target voters try out the ballot before the design and language become final. The methodology for having voters try out a draft is usability testing (Rubin & Chisnell, 2008). We strongly recommend this behavioral test with actual voters. Having election officials review the ballot may show functional and copy edit problems, such as a misspelled name; but some problems (such as people not seeing a contest, not seeing an important instruction, or voting contrary to their intent) will become apparent only when a few voters try out the ballot.

The Usability Professionals' Association's project on Usability in Civic Life has a kit to help local elections officials learn about, plan, conduct, and learn from usability testing. (Usability Professionals' Association, Usability in Civic Life Project, Voting and Usability Project. The LEO Usability Testing Kit. http://www.upassoc.org/civiclife/voting/leo_testing.html)

The following web sites are other resources about usability testing:

Recommending future research

This study (like all specific research studies) was limited. In this study, education mattered; but we did not specifically test our low-education participants for low literacy. Our participants ranged in age from 18 to 61, but we did not concentrate on older adults although we know that aging brings memory problems, vision problems, and more. Our study focused on reading; we did not include people with special needs, such as those who must listen to rather than see the ballot. We studied electronic ballots, not paper. The ballots were only in English.

Future research might investigate the following questions:

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