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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


Although many election officials know that language matters; many do not know just what about language matters, how much it matters, or what to do about the wording on ballots. Through this NIST-sponsored research, we now have evidence that plain language affects voting accuracy, especially for voters with lower levels of education. Not only does plain language help voters vote the way they intend, voters recognize differences in language and greatly prefer to have plain language instructions.

In this study, U.S. citizens voted more accurately on a ballot with instructions in plain language than on a ballot with instructions in traditional language. When asked to compare pages from the two ballots, these same voters recognized plain language, preferring short, simple words, short paragraphs, and clear explanations. When asked for an overall preference (Ballot A, Ballot B, no preference), 82% chose Ballot B, the ballot with plain language instructions.

We have presented the findings from this study to local election officials from across the U.S. They have been eager to have evidence-based information on how to write instructions for ballots. Some have gone as far as working with state legislators to change election laws to make room for plain language in elections. It has been gratifying to know this work is gradually being adopted throughout the U.S. for ballots and other election materials.

Plain language is a critical part of making voting easier and more accessible for all voters. Other critical parts include the information design and the interaction design (both of which we held constant in our study). However, even clear instructions cannot compensate for all problems in voting. In particular, straight-party voting remained confusing to many voters, as did contests at different levels of government, and being shown their undervotes in bright red boxes.

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