Ballotpedia’s 2019 ballot measure readability scores—How easy is it to understand what’s on your ballot?

The Daily Brew
Welcome to the Thursday, October 17, Brew. Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. Ballotpedia’s 2019 ballot measure readability scores—How easy is it to understand what’s on your ballot?
  2. Local Roundup
  3. Federal district courts block implementation of public charge rule

Ballotpedia’s 2019 ballot measure readability scores—How easy is it to understand what’s on your ballot?

I installed some new software the other day, and for once, I tried to understand the end-user license agreement that I had to approve before it would complete the installation. Some of it made sense, but there were other sections where I was pretty lost. That’s probably the case with any legal document.

I thought that some voters might feel the same way when faced with ballot measures when going to vote. It’s hard to be an informed citizen when you have trouble understanding what you’re reading. I was excited when our Ballot Measures editor told me it was time to publish our readability index.  

For the third year in a row, we’ve taken ballot measure language and run it through industry-standard assessment tools to assign a readability rating. We ran the 2019 ballot titles and summaries for all 36 statewide ballot measures through formulas designed to measure the readability of text. 

Overall, the average estimated number of years of U.S. education required to understand the text of ballot measure titles decreased compared to the last two years. We found that in 2019, 15 years of formal U.S. education is needed to understand ballot measure titles. That number was between 19 and 20 in 2018 and 20 in 2017.

Our ballot measures team used two formulas, the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL), to compute scores for the titles and summaries of ballot measures. The FKGL formula produces a score equivalent to the estimated number of years of U.S. education required to understand a text. The FRE formula produces a score between a negative number and 100, with the highest score (100) representing a 5th-grade equivalent reading level and scores at or below zero representing college graduate-equivalent reading level. Therefore, the higher the score, the easier the text is to read. Measurements used in calculating readability scores include the number of syllables, words, and sentences in a text. Other factors, such as the complexity of an idea in a text, are not reflected in readability scores. 

Here are some highlights from Ballotpedia’s 2019 ballot language readability report: 

  • The average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for the ballot titles of all 2019 ballot measures is 15 years of formal U.S. education. Scores ranged from 6 to 27 years. 

  • The average Flesch Reading Ease score for the 2019 ballot measure titles is 26. The scores ranged from -22 to 69.

  • The average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for the ballot summaries or explanations of all the 2019 statewide ballot measures that were given a summary or explanation is 15 years of formal U.S. education. The average Flesch Reading Ease score for ballot measure summaries is 25.

  • The states with the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scores for ballot titles or questions are Washington, Pennsylvania, and Maine with 9, 10, and 17, respectively. This means that they require less formal education to understand the meaning of the titles.

  • The states with the highest average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scores for ballot titles or questions are Colorado, Kansas, and Texas with 27, 23, and 20. The titles from these states require greater levels of formal education to understand the meaning of the titles.

  • Average ballot title grades were lowest for language written by the Washington Attorney General (9) and initiative petitioners (10). Average ballot title grades were highest for language written by state legislatures (20).

How does this compare to prior years?

  • In 2017, there were 27 statewide measures in nine states. The average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for ballot measure titles was 20. Scores ranged from seven to 42.

  • In 2018, there were 167 statewide measures in 38 states. The average Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level for ballot measure titles was between 19 and 20. Scores ranged from eight to 42.

Readability

Ballotpedia also measures the word length of ballot titles across states. The states with the longest ballot titles or questions on average are Kansas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Colorado; all of these except New Jersey did not feature additional ballot summaries or explanations. The states with the shortest ballot titles or questions on average are Texas, Maine, Louisiana, and Washington.


Local Roundup 

At Ballotpedia, we provide election coverage of all officeholders in the nation’s 100 largest cities—including mayors, city council members, and other municipal officers. We also cover every election on the ballot in these cities, such as county officials and local ballot measures.

Here’s our weekly summary of the local news we’re covering. Email me to suggest some interesting local election coverage in your area—I’d love to hear about it!

Atlanta

Aretta Baldon defeated David Huntley—58% to 42%—in a special runoff election October 15 for a seat on the Atlanta Public Schools school board. Baldon and Huntley had advanced as the top two finishers from a nine-candidate field in the general election September 17, with Baldon finishing first with 31% of the vote and Huntley second with 25%.

The seat became vacant after Byron Amos—who had served on the board since 2011—resigned in January 2019 to run for a seat on the Atlanta City Council. With only eight current board members, the school board has had at least one vote—a plan to rate district schools—end up in a 4-4 tie. The winner of the special election will fill Amos’ unexpired term, which ends in 2021. 

Hickory, North Carolina

A spot in the general election for a seat on the Hickory City Council was determined by a coin toss after two candidates received the same number of votes for second place in the nonpartisan primary election October 9. Incumbent Danny Seaver finished first in the primary with 28 votes and Nathan Hefner and Daria Jackson both received 16 votes each. 

Under North Carolina law, tied elections with fewer than 5,000 votes cast are decided by random selection. In this instance, a coin toss was used to decide second place. Jackson called heads and the coin turned up tails, meaning Hefner advanced to the November 5 general election.

During the 2019 election cycle, Ballotpedia is expanding its coverage of North Carolina in order to provide voters with a comprehensive statewide sample ballot. This includes covering elections in the state for 503 cities, towns, and villages, nine school districts, and 17 special districts.


Federal district courts block implementation of public charge rule 

Three federal district court judges in New York, California, and Washington issued temporary injunctions on October 11 blocking a rule announced by the Trump administration that changes how the federal government screens immigrants who might become dependent on government services. A fourth federal judge in Chicago issued a similar injunction on October 14. The rule was set to take effect October 15. 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced the final version of the rule—known as the public charge rule—on August 12. It would change how the federal government screens immigrants who might become dependent on government services. Agencies may deny immigrants a visa or a green card under the rule if they have used food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, or other public benefits.

The rule amends a guidance document issued in 1999 that stipulated that only public cash assistance or long-term institutionalization at government expense qualified as evidence that an immigrant was at risk of being a public charge and could be denied legal status. The new rule expands the factors agencies may consider when deciding those cases. 

Twenty-one states, the District of Columbia, New York City, the government of Cook County, Illinois, and immigrant aid organizations formed coalitions that filed four separate lawsuits challenging the implementation of the rule.

The four judges that issued the injunctions ruled that the rule was arbitrary and capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act, failed to consider potential costs to state and local governments, and constituted an unsupported congressional delegation of authority to DHS, among other claims. All four justices were appointed by Democratic presidents—two by President Bill Clinton and two by President Barack Obama.

The White House and USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli issued separate statements on October 11 expressing disappointment with the decisions. “An objective judiciary will see that this rule lies squarely within long-held existing law,” Cuccinelli stated. 

The Trump administration can appeal the district court rulings to the federal appellate courts. Administration officials had yet to announce an appeal as of October 16.

 




About the author

Dave Beaudoin

Dave Beaudoin is a project director at Ballotpedia and can be reached at dave.beaudoin@ballotpedia.org

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