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Write So They Understand–Translating Election-Speak into Plain Language for Voters, Candidates and Poll Workers

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 13:57

By Elaine Ginnold, Marin County, CA Registrar of Voters

When California voters looked at their ballots for the 2012 Presidential Primary and General Elections, they saw the following language, printed in small type at the top of the list of candidates for U.S. Senator:

“All voters, regardless of the party preference they disclosed upon registration, or refusal to disclose a party preference, may vote for any candidate for a voter-nominated or nonpartisan office. The party preference, if any, designated by a candidate for a voter-nominated office is selected by the candidate and is shown for the information of the voters only. It does not imply that the candidate is nominated or endorsed by the party or that the party approves of the candidate. The party preference, if any, of a candidate for a nonpartisan office does not appear on the ballot.

Voters called their local elections offices to ask for an explanation of this confusing election-speak. They didn’t understand the instructions because they were not written in plain language.

The confusing language on ballots for the 2012 Primary and General Elections is required by California’s “Top Two Candidates Open Primary Initiative,” a new state law which went into effect for the 2012 Primary and General Elections in California. Because California State Election law stipulates the precise wording of the voting instructions on ballots, County Elections Officials could not re-write these instructions in plain language to make them easier for voters to read and understand.

Plain language means writing that is clear, concise, well organized and directed to the audience it is trying to reach. It means that the reader is able to understand information in one reading.

The concept of using plain language in government communications to the public has a long history in the U.S. Federal Government. In her A History of Plain Language in the United Sates Government, (2004), Joanne Locke recounts the evolution of the plain language movement in the US Government during the 20th Century. In the 1940s, the book, Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go, by John O’Hayre, an employee in the Bureau of Land Management, brought attention to the problem of confusing government language. In the 1970s, President Nixon ordered the Federal Register to be written in “layman’s terms.” That was followed by President Carter’s executive order to federal agencies to make government regulations easy to understand. In 1998, President Clinton issued orders that required federal employees to write regulations in plain language. Recently, Congress passed The Plain Writing Act (Public Law 111-274) which was signed by President Obama in 2010. The purpose of the Plain Writing Act is to “promote clear government communications that the public can understand and use.” The Act applies to federal agencies and requires plain language training for agency staff.

In 2011, the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), an association of federal employees, published plain language guidelines to implement the new Act. These guidelines explain the elements of plain language and give examples of government agency writing before and after it was translated into plain language. A few of the plain language principles in the May 2011 Federal Plain Language Guidelines are:

  • Write short sentences
  • Use short, simple, everyday words
  • Use the active voice for verbs
  • Use the simplest form of a verb

The Census Bureau encourages the use of plain language for its employees and advises them to “minimize census-speak.” There is a quote by Albert Einstein on the Census Bureau’s website that says, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well.”

Voters, candidates and poll workers are target audiences for an Elections Department. Voters need to know how to register to vote, and where, when and how to vote. Candidates need to know about important deadlines and forms they must fill out to get on the ballot. Poll workers need to know how to help voters and how to manage ballots, equipment and paperwork at the polls.

Plain language communication to voters, candidates, and poll workers is a priority for the Marin County Elections Department. Since 2008, the Department has worked with language specialists from Transcend Translations, Davis, California, to write voting instructions, the Candidate Guide and poll worker training manuals in plain language. Following are examples of written communications to voters, candidates and poll workers before and after they were translated into plain language.


In 2008, the Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law, published Better Ballots (Norden, Kimball, Quesenbery, Chen, 2008) which showed how poor ballot design can frustrate voters and cause problems with voting on Election Day. As part of the study, language specialists translated the voting instructions on the 2008 Marin County Primary Election ballot into plain language. Voters tested a sample of the ballot for usability and gave it a high rating. Below is an example of what the voting instructions looked like before and after they were translated. Although the language in the” before” instructions is required by the California Elections Code, the language in the “after” instructions is much clearer and means the same thing. When voting instructions are clear and easy to understand, voters are more likely to follow them and avoid mistakes that could prevent their vote from counting.

Instructions Before

Instructions After

If you wrongly mark, tear or deface any portion of your ballot sheet, replace the sheet in the secrecy folder and return it to the Precinct Board Member and obtain another ballot.

If you make a mistake or damage your ballot, ask a poll worker for another ballot.

The location of your polling place is shown on the back cover of this sample ballot

See back cover to find out where to vote.


Candidates need information that explains their filing obligations, forms and deadlines. The candidate nominations requirements written in California election law are already confusing. If candidates don’t understand their filing requirements and make mistakes during the nominations period, they may lose access to the ballot. Earlier this year, the Elections Department translated its Candidate’s Guide for the November 5, 2013 General Election into plain language. The language and layout changes transformed the Guide from a 54 page difficult-to-read document to one that was 17 pages of clear, plain language. Following are examples of before and after language in the Candidates’ Guide:

Before translation

After translation

Candidates for certain offices may elect to purchase space for a candidate’s statement in the voter information portion of the county sample ballot

Candidates are allowed to file a statement that gives more information about their education and qualifications. This statement will be printed in the Voter Information Pamphlet

The candidate’s ballot designation is limited to three words that must describe your current profession, vocation, occupation of incumbency status. It appears on the ballot under your name, and it is optional. Candidates must complete a Ballot Designation Worksheet to justify the ballot designation. A sample of the required worksheet is shown on the following page

You may have up to 3 words that describe your current occupation or incumbency status placed on the ballot. These words are called your ballot designation. To request a ballot designation, you must fill out a Ballot Designation Worksheet (sample in the Appendix section), and file it with your other candidate papers by the deadline.

Poll workers

One of the challenges before an election is to train poll workers on election procedures so they can learn how keep the polling place running smoothly during the long day of voting. In addition to using interactive, hands-on training techniques that are effective with adults, Marin County gives plain language instruction manuals to poll workers to use at training classes and at the polls. The Poll Worker Instruction Manual covers basic polling place procedures. It is in the form of a “flip guide” with key topics printed in large letters on the bottom portion of each page. Poll workers find the topic and then flip to the page that describes what to do. It is a fast and easy way for poll workers to find the answers to their questions. In 2010, the Elections Office translated all of its poll worker guides into plain language. Following are before and after examples in Marin County’s Poll Worker Instruction Manual:

Before Translation

After Translation

Update Master Roster-Index by marking ”VBM” in red pencil next to the names of voters that correspond to the names on the Vote by Mail Voter list. This is a list of VBM voters added after the Roster was printed. You will receive this list by mail by the Monday before Election Day only if there are VBM voter’s names to update in your precinct.

You may receive a Vote-by-Mail Voter List by the Monday before Election day. If you do, you must update the Roster.

Mark “VBM” in red pencil in the Remarks column of the Roster next to the names of all voters whose names are on the Vote-by-Mail Voter list.

Arrange the polling place so that ballot box and voting booths are in clear view of the precinct board(s). Connect the voting booth lamps to each other (make sure that all cords are safely out of the way.)

· Set up your polling place so all poll workers can clearly see the ballot box and voting booths.

· Connect the voting booth lamps to each other. (All cords must be away from foot traffic.)

Information Design

Information design – how the written information looks on the page – goes along with plain language. Writing can be clear, but if it is not presented clearly on the page, readers may not completely understand it.

In her book, Design For Democracy; Ballot + Election Design (2007), Marcia Lawson, Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains the importance of the visual display of information and instructions on ballots and in other election publications. She gives examples of the following five principles of ballot design (Lawson, p.23):

  • Use lowercase letters for greater legibility
  • Understand and assign information hierarchy
  • Keep type font, size, weight, and width variations to a minimum
  • Do not center-align type
  • Use shading and graphic devices to support hierarchy and aid legibility

An example of how poor information design confused voters was the ”butterfly ballot” that was used in the Votomatic voting devices in North Palm Beach County, Florida for the 2000 Presidential Election. Voters were confused when they saw the candidates of different political parties printed on facing ballot pages with the arrows next to each candidate pointing to the same line of punch positions in the space where the pages met each other. Some voters claimed that they had voted for the wrong candidates because they were confused by the layout of the ballot. The vote for president was extremely close in that election which resulted in recounts and intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court to end the election chaos that was created in part by the design of the North Palm Beach County ballot.

A common example of poor information design is voting instructions that show voters both the right and wrong ways to mark their ballots. For example, in some counties, the instructions for marking an optical scan ballot show the correct way to mark the ballot, which is an oval filled in. Next to the oval, the instructions also show an x and a checkmark, which are incorrect ways to mark the ballot. Voters will see all three marks without reading the text and think they can use any one of the marks to vote for a candidate or measure. The problem with using incorrect marks is that they may be outside of the scan area, so the scanner can’t read them. When the scanner can’t read the voter’s mark, the vote will not count.

Poor information design and dense, confusing language are serious problems when they interfere with voting, but there are obstacles that block elections officials from using the principles of plain language and information design when presenting important election information.

The most common obstacle to providing plain language election information for voters is state election law. There is no equivalent to the federal Plain Writing Act in California to encourage the use of plain language. In California, requirements for voting instructions and for ballot layout are prescribed in detail in the California Elections Code. For example, contrary to the principals of good information design, the Elections Code requires that candidate’s names be printed on the ballot in all uppercase letters and that the heading for the ballot be centered on top of the ballot. Instructions for the ballot language for California’s new open primary election are spelled out verbatim in the law and can’t be modified by elections officials. While there are good reasons for requiring uniformity of ballot language and layout throughout the state; it would be more helpful to voters and elections officials if the language requirements in the law were written in plain language and the ballot layout requirements followed established information design principles. A plain writing law at the state level, similar to the federal law could help improve communications to voters, candidates and poll workers.

Another obstacle is that writing plain language and designing the way information is presented are specialized skills that must be learned and practiced. Election departments generally do not have experts in these specialized areas on their staffs, yet they communicate regularly with voters, candidates and poll workers through letters, manuals, and training materials. It would be helpful for elections officials to have training in how to write information in plain language and in the principles of information design.

Could the use of plain language in voting instructions and other election information influence voter turnout? The June 2012 Primary Election was the first time that California voters saw the confusing language on their ballots and voter turnout was extremely low. Statewide, the turnout was 31.06%. In Marin County, it was 49.81%.

After the June 2012 Primary Election, Professor Elizabeth Bergman, Cal State Eastbay, conducted a survey of non voters in Marin County. The survey found that young, low income, and minority voters were confused by the mechanics of voting.

While more research is needed to determine the impact of confusing ballot instructions and poor ballot design on voter turnout, election information should be accessible to all voters, not just those who are skilled in decoding government election-speak. Clear instructions and election information are especially important for young voters who are voting for the first time; for voters who don’t speak English well; for voters who are not competent readers; and for infrequent voters who aren’t familiar with the voting process.

When election information is clear and easy to understand, voters, candidates and poll workers are more likely to avoid mistakes that could interfere with their right to vote, their right to ballot access, and their ability to help voters on Election Day.


Bergman, Elizabeth, Marin County Voter Survey, June Primary Election Analysis, Cal State East Bay, San Jose, CA, September 2012

Federal Plain Language Guidelines,, revised May 2011.

Lausen, Marcia, Design for Democracy: Ballot + Election Design, University of Chicago Press, 2007

Locke, Joanne, A History of Plain Language in the United States Government,,2004

Norden, Kimball, Quesenbery,and Chen, Better Ballots, Brennan Center of Justice, NYU School of Law, New York, 2008.

Plain Writing Act of 2010, Public Law 111-274

The Marin County Candidate Guide and Poll Worker Instructions translated by Transcend Translations are posted on the Marin County website,,