Every election department (and many advocacy groups) create flyers and small booklets to help voters learn about elections. But when we looked for guidelines for good communication with voters, we found very little. There were some political science and social psychology experiments that measured the impact of get-out-the-vote campaigns, but there was little about what questions voters have, and how to answer those questions well. As a companion to the research on county election websites, we did a study of how new voters used election information booklets. We recruited people who had voted for the first time in the 2008 election or later. Our participants were young people, recently naturalized citizens, and people with lower literacy. As new voters, we hoped that they would remember their first experiences clearly and would still have questions about elections.
We worked with a selection of voter education materials that we thought were pretty good: clearly written, attractively designed, with good information.
• League of Women Voters: VOTE (sometimes it takes a 4-letter word)Trifold brochure, with general information about voting
• San Francisco: A Voter’s Guide to San Francisco Elections Tri-fold brochure with information about voting in that city
• Maryland: Voting in Maryland 8-page small booklet with information about the 2011-2012 elections
• Oregon: Voting in Oregon Guide 12-page small booklet, mailed to each voter as instructions with their ballot
• Leon County Florida: Official Election Guide 12-page large booklet, mailed to each voter, including a generic sample ballot
We asked our participants to choose two of them to read, marking any sections they thought were particularly good or particularly confusing. And then we talked about what they read.
They had many of the same questions as the participants in the web site study:
• what’s on the ballot
• where do I go vote
• how do I get an absentee ballot
• Many other questions were about the basic mechanics of voting, from eligibility and ID requirements, to finding their polling place, to the details of how to mark their ballot.
When we sorted out all the data, we weren’t surprised to find that the overriding concern was being able to act on the information. That fits the definition of plain language: information voters can find, understand, and use.