The readability of U.S. voter-information Websites

Helping voters

The goal: helping people vote using as few words and clicks as possible.

VOTING procedures are difficult enough. In the U.S., the problem is compounded by the fact that there is no uniform voting code. Each state—and often the counties within it—have their own voting regulations and procedures.

In this issue, we take a look at the readability of the online voter information offered on the Websites of the various U.S. states and territories.

We applied Gunning's Fog formula to samples of least 500 words from complete sentences in each of the Websites. As you can see from the chart below, the results are very uneven, going from the 9th to the 25th grade.

The election officials should not have to be reminded that the average reader in the U.S. is an adult of limited reading ability. According to national literacy surveys, the average adult reads at the 9th-grade level. There are large numbers of high school graduates who read at the 8th-grade level. Nearly a third of the population does not graduate from high school.

The average metropolitan newspaper is written at the 11th grade. The most popular fiction is written at the 7th grade level. Less than five percent of the population will read a Web page that is above the 15th-grade level. Several of the Websites are in clear violation of their state's clarity requirements for public documents.

Click on the state name for a link to the Website:

Voter's Information Fog Level Languages Online Forms
Alabama 17.4 1 Yes
Alaska 14.6 6 Yes
American Samoa 21.8 1 Yes
Arizona 15.7 1 Yes
Arkansas 15.5 1 Yes
California 18.5 7 Yes
Colorado 16.7 2 Yes+
Connecticut 22.9 2 Yes
Delaware 16.1 1 Yes
District of Columbia 15.2 1 Yes
Florida 16.4 2 Yes
Georgia 13.4 1 Yes+
Guam 13.9 1 Yes
Hawaii 12.4 5 Yes
Idaho 12.4 1 Yes
Illinois 17.2 2 Yes
Indiana 17.2 1 Yes+
Iowa 13.7 1 Yes
Kansas 13.8 1 Yes+
Kentucky 22.6 1 Yes
Louisiana 14.1 1 Yes
Maine 12.4 1 No
Maryland 18.2 1 Yes
Massachusetts 15.5 2 Yes
Michigan 13.3 1 Yes
Minnesota 18.0 6 Yes
Mississippi 15.0 1 No
Missouri 15.3 1 Yes
Montana 11.6 1 Yes
Nebraska 14.8 1 Yes
Nevada 16.2 2 Yes
New Hampshire 21.9 1 No
New Jersey 17.7 2 Yes
New Mexico 17.4 Google No
New York 16.4 2 Yes
North Carolina  15.4 2 Yes
North Dakota 18.2 1 N/A
Northern Marianas Islands 19.0 1 Yes
Ohio 16.0 1 Yes
Oklahoma 10.7 1 Yes
Oregon 14.4  2 Yes+
Pennsylvania  9.6 8 Yes+
Puerto Rico N/A 2 Yes
Rhode Island 13.1 2 Yes
South Carolina 19.2 1 Yes
South Dakota 12.5 1 Yes
Tennessee 14.7 1 Yes
Texas 14.4 2 Yes
Utah 13.7 1 Yes+
Vermont 13.7 1 Yes
Virginia 16.0 1 Yes
Virgin Islands 14.5 2 No
Washington 25.8 3 Yes+
West Virginia 11.5 1 Yes
Wisconsin 15.1 1 Yes
Wyoming 13.7 1 Yes


And the losers are...

American Samoa takes the prize for the worst voter-information Website. Its main page has too much unnecessary information and gives you no clue on how to register.

It takes more than simple language to make the Website easy-to-use. Poorly written Websites usually have problems with usability, design, focus, and organization. Good Websites deliver the information that you need with clear choices, the fewest clicks, and the least amount of scrolling.

Many Websites have too much information. They miss the purpose of getting people into the ballot booth by using as few words and as few clicks as possible. Connecticutt's Website is a good example of too many choices. Which link should you to choose for the quickest help in how to register to vote?

Website creators often organize their information around the nature of the information and not around the needs of different kinds of visitors (voters, candidates, officials, etc.). Oklahoma, for example, is missing a link to voter registration on its main page. Washington also has a confusing number of choices.

California's site is a good example of too much information and too many words. Look at this paragraph:

Your voter registration should always reflect your current residence. However, if you have moved from your home into a temporary residence that you do not intend to use as your permanent residence, you can continue to use your prior permanent residence where you were previously registered to vote as your address for the purpose of voting. (56 words)

Why not something like:

If your move is permanent, you have to register again. If it is not, you can use your old address. (20 words)

And the winners are...

South Dakota wins the prize for brevity, taking only 37 words on its main page to tell readers how to register.

Utah shows a lot of class with a very professional design. Its shorter line length deserves special mention as it makes Web reading much easier.

Also deserving special mention for excellence in design are Guam, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Montana, Vermont, and West Virginia.

Pennsylvania, however, with its clear focus on voters' needs, has our vote for the best voter-information Website. Its simple online registration, eight languages, splendid design, and 9th-grade readability makes it a great model for everyone seeking to create good Web design.

Congratulations to all the winners! May their commitment to helping voters spread far and wide!

Plain language in the news

Why do good policy ideas turn into porridge? http://tinyurl.com/3gjyg3d

Conformity in analysts' language may indicate market instability: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110718101202.htm

The value of comics in reading instruction: http://tinyurl.com/3fnvglg

Insurers must simplify their product info: http://tinyurl.com/3u84v2f

U.S. Plain-Writing Act one year on:

Plain Portuguese: http://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/98/65550.html

Kiss your tech jargon goodbye: http://tinyurl.com/3d2qeyk

Results of International Plain-Language Day:

Plain language initiative in South Africa: http://allafrica.com/stories/201110050083.html

Bad language is bad business: http://tinyurl.com/3zw8hxy

SEC reviews plain-English brochures: http://tinyurl.com/3cnly5e

Illiteracy in Philadelphia: http://tinyurl.com/3ngblps

Illiteracy in Britain: http://tinyurl.com/42un27r

In praise of readability: http://mhpbooks.com/41882/in-praise-of-readability/

What's wrong with a readable book? http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1074345

Readability is not dumbing down: http://tinyurl.com/3te94co

Readability of U.S. ballot measures: http://tinyurl.com/3okez2e

Gobbledygook and food labels: http://tinyurl.com/3kynj5o