2023 statewide ballot measures written at graduate school reading level

The ballot language for the 41 statewide ballot measures on the ballot in eight states in 2023 is written at an average reading level of 19 (third-year graduate school reading level), which is up from 18 years in 2021. 

Ballotpedia identified five measures with a ballot summary, which is longer than the ballot title or ballot question. The average grade level for ballot summaries was 22 years of education. This is the first year since Ballotpedia started tracking ballot measure readability scores in 2017 when the average ballot summary grade exceeded the average ballot title or question grade. 

[Insert historical table]

Ballotpedia’s readability report analyzes what level of education voters would need to understand the ballot titles and summaries of statewide ballot measures using Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL). A readability score produces a score equivalent to the estimated number of years of U.S. education required to understand a text. 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 the annual report:

Title and summary grades

In 2023, the measure with the highest grade level score was Colorado Proposition II with a title grade level of 43. The average ballot title grade for all measures in a single state ranged from 12 in New York and Ohio to 35 in Colorado.

Five measures had ballot summaries with grades ranging from 17 years to 30 years. 

Citizen-initiated measures received an average title grade of 14 years of education and referred measures received an average title grade of 20 years. The average ballot title grade was highest for ballot titles written by state legislatures (21) and lowest for state boards (12).

[Title grades by state table]

Word count

The average ballot title word count was 73 words. In 2021, it was 53 words. The ballot measure with the longest ballot title was Ohio Issue 2 with 565 words asking voters to decide on recreational marijuana legalization. The ballot measure with the shortest ballot title was Texas Proposition 13 with 15 words asking voters to increase the mandatory retirement age for state judges.

Historical readability scores

Ballotpedia has tracked the readability scores of statewide ballot measures since 2017. The year with the lowest ballot title grade was 2019 with 15 years of education, and the years with the highest were 2017 and 2020 with 20 years of education.

Legislation related to readability

Earlier in 2023, one state, North Dakota, passed a bill requiring summaries of ballot measures to be written in “plain, clear, understandable language using words with common, everyday meaning.” State Rep. Jorin Johnson (R-41), who supported the bill, said, “Plain language is a way of writing that uses smaller words and shorter sentences. This helps people understand the main ideas more clearly without inflated vocabulary and convoluted sentence construction.” State Sen. Judy Lee (R-13), who voted against the bill, said, “As one of our people who testified said, ‘It’s a noble goal, but ‘readable’ is in the eye of the beholder.’ … There are no definitions for some of the words used in the bill like ‘common everyday meaning’… It’s just extremely hard to define.”

Before 2023, the last bill passed related to ballot measure readability was Maine Legislative Document 534 (LD 534) in 2019. LD 534 required ballot questions to be written “as simply as is possible.”