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Study Ranks WA 2019 Ballot Measures Easiest to Read

A study finds Washingtonians need an average of nine years of education to understand 2019 ballot measures. (Scott Van Blarcom/Adobe Stock)
A study finds Washingtonians need an average of nine years of education to understand 2019 ballot measures. (Scott Van Blarcom/Adobe Stock)
October 21, 2019

SEATTLE – Ballot measures are a direct way for voters to get involved in democracy, but only if voters can understand the measures’ language.

A study by Ballotpedia, a nonprofit and nonpartisan encyclopedia of elections, finds voters need an average of 15 years of education to understand 2019 measures in eight states.

Washington state had the easiest measures to understand, with only nine years needed.

Cindy Black, executive director of the pro-democracy advocacy group Fix Democracy First, says readability of measures is key to voter turnout.

"When you talk to a lot of people that don't vote, not understanding what's on the ballot is oftentimes one of the things that they say,” she points out. “So the more you can make a ballot understandable to the general voter, the better off we're going to be. We want everybody to vote – not people with just college education."

Ballotpedia used two methods for scoring ballot measure language, the Flesch reading ease and Flesch-Kincaid grade level tests, widely used formulas that analyze characteristics like word and sentence complexity.

The tests find Colorado had the hardest measures to understand, with an average of 27 years of school needed.

Josh Altic, project director of direct democracy for Ballotpedia, says there are limitations to this study, noting it doesn't consider the complexity of the topic in the measure. He says the study's goal is to increase awareness about this issue as his organization continues examining it in future elections.

But one trend Ballotpedia did notice is that when attorneys general write ballot language, as was the case in Washington, measures are easier to understand.

"And this has been a trend that we've noticed since 2017 – the reading level is often lower on average for an attorney general written ballot language than for something by the legislature," he states.

While Washington measures this fall are easiest to understand, only three are binding. The rest are advisory measures, which Black says are basically a vote on whether you agree with a law or not.

"When I've talked to election officials, they say they get the most questions about those advisory votes, but yet it doesn't really do anything,” Black points out. “Those are one thing I think we could clean up our ballot and realize that those aren't really necessary. If you don't agree with a law, there's other ways to do it."

Washington state ballots must be submitted by Nov. 5.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Fulcrum. The Fulcrum's analysis can be found at thefulcrum.us/civic-ed/ballot-measures-2019.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - WA