New York becomes second state to pass law on readability of ballot measures this year

Welcome to the Wednesday, November 22, 2023, Brew. 

By: Joe Greaney

Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. New York becomes second state to pass law on readability of ballot measures this year
  2. Happy Thanksgiving! Let’s take a look at part of what makes tomorrow special for Ballotpedia.
  3. 71 candidates filed for federal and statewide offices last week

New York becomes second state to pass law on readability of ballot measures this year

Starting in 2024, New York will implement new language requirements for state ballot questions. On Nov. 17, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed Senate Bill 1381 (SB 1381), which requires state ballot measures to be written using clear language that does not exceed an eighth-grade reading level. In the Legislature, SB 1381 received a unanimous vote in each chamber.

New York is the second state to approve such a bill this year. In March, North Dakota passed SB 2163, that requires ballot measure summaries to be written in “plain, clear, understandable language using words with common, everyday meaning.” 

Before 2023, Maine passed a law in 2019 that required ballot questions to be written as simply as possible. While the three laws required the use of plain or simple language, New York’s law also includes a specific grade-level requirement based on an index called the Automated Readability Index. New York also defines the phrase “plain language” as “easily comprehended, concise language” that does not include semicolons, double negatives, or more than one passive sentence. Neither Maine nor North Dakota include specific definitions or grade-level requirements.

Ballotpedia uses 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 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. The higher the score, the easier the text is to read. 

The FKGL formula produces a score equivalent to the estimated number of years of U.S. education required to understand a text. A score of five means that a U.S. 5th grade student would be able to read and comprehend a text, while a score of 20 estimates that a person with 20 years of U.S. formal education would be able to read and comprehend a text.

The average  FKGL score for the titles of this year’s 41 statewide ballot measures was 19 years—or roughly the same reading level as a third-year grad student.

To find more about ballot measure readability, click here

In New York, state Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-14), the lead sponsor of SB 1381, wrote, “If voters cannot understand the text—or the implications of the question—they cannot participate effectively. The solution is writing ballot questions in plain language.” In North Dakota, Rep. Jorin Johnson (R-41) 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.” While the New York bill passed unanimously, 21% of North Dakota lawmakers voted against that state’s readability bill. 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.”

The  two constitutional amendments on New York’s ballot this year had readability scores equivalent to 11th-grade and 12th-grade reading levels. Since 2017, there have been 11 state ballot measures in New York, with an average readability score of 14, or a college sophomore reading level. In 2023, the average score across the states was 19, which is similar to a graduate school reading level. Only one of the measures on the ballot in New York since 2017 would have met the new readability standard. 

The next ballot measure election in New York is scheduled for the general election on Nov. 5, 2024. Voters will decide on at least one constitutional amendment. The ballot measure would amend the state’s Bill of Rights to provide that people cannot be denied rights based on “ethnicity, national origin, age, and disability” or “sex, including sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes, and reproductive healthcare and autonomy.”

So far this year, at least 44 pieces of legislation related to ballot measures have been enacted into law. Since 2018, 204 bills related to ballot measures have been enacted, with an annual average of 34. The count in 2023 ties the count from 2019, when 44 bills were also adopted.

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Happy Thanksgiving! Let’s take a look at part of what makes tomorrow special for Ballotpedia.

Thanksgiving is tomorrow! As we wrap up 2023, let’s take a moment to remember what makes Thanksgiving special. Ballotpedia staff have shared some of their favorite traditions and activities that they look forward to most:

  • Cheering with my cousins for the pug to win the National Dog show! … And always feeling robbed when it eventually loses.
  • Now that my kids are older and self-sufficient in the kitchen, each of them gets to choose their favorite recipe to cook and contribute to the family dinner. It’s very much a team effort which is so great!
  • Running (I use that term loosely) a Turkey Trot 5k or 10k on Thanksgiving Day morning.
  • My siblings and I would all wake up in time for hot chocolate and the Macy’s parade. We are all out of the house with children and still gather at my parents’ house to watch, sip, and sing along to the Broadway numbers.
  • Every year I look forward to putting on sweatpants after Thanksgiving dinner and playing board games until late in the evening!
  • Growing up, my cousins, my sister, and I always made elaborate gingerbread houses on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Our Grandmother would bake the various components from scratch the week leading into the holidays, pull out pictures for inspiration and candy for decorations, and dutifully make an untold amount of royal icing to serve as glue for our masterpieces.

From all of us at Ballotpedia, we hope you have a happy Thanksgiving and safe travels! Our regular coverage will resume Monday, Nov. 27.

71 candidates filed for federal and statewide offices last week

Seventy-one people declared candidacy for federal or statewide offices in the past week, 42 more than the week before. All of these candidates declared before their state’s official filing deadline.

Twenty-nine of those candidates were Democratic, while 36 were Republican. Five are minor-party candidates, and one is running in a nonpartisan race.

Forty-two candidates are running for Congress, 21 for state legislatures, one for governorship, six for a lower state executive office, and one for state supreme court.

Since the beginning of the year, Ballotpedia has identified 2,281 declared candidates for federal and statewide offices. At this time in 2021, Ballotpedia had identified 2,512 declared candidates for 2022, 2023, and 2024 races.

An official candidate is someone who registers with a federal or state campaign finance agency before the candidate filing deadline or appears on candidate lists released by government election agencies. A declared candidate is someone who has not completed the steps to become an official candidate but who might have done one or more of the following:

  1. Appeared in candidate forums or debates
  2. Published a campaign website
  3. Published campaign social media pages
  4. Advertised online, on television, or through print
  5. Issued press releases
  6. Interviewed with media publications

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