Rhode Island enacts a readability requirement, an eighth-grade reading level, for ballot measure questions

In Rhode Island, a new law requires that ballot measure questions be written in plain language and reasonably calculated to be understood by those with an eighth-grade reading level.

The bill was passed unanimously by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Daniel McKee (D) on June 4, 2024.

Currently, five measures have been certified for the 2024 ballot in Rhode Island. One measure asks voters whether the state should hold a constitutional convention. Four bond measures were also referred to the ballot, which would issue a total of $343.5 million in bonds for various projects, including housing projects, higher-education infrastructure, environmental-related infrastructure, local recreation projects, and grants for the Cultural Arts and Economy Grant program.

Rhode Island does not have an initiative and referendum process, meaning all measures on the ballot are referred to the ballot by the Rhode Island State Legislature.

From 2018 through 2022, fourteen measures were on the ballot in Rhode Island. The ballot titles had an average ballot title grade of 12, meaning about twelve years of education would be required to understand it according to the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL), which analyzes the text and produces a score equivalent to the estimated number of years of U.S. education required to understand a text. Across all states, from 2018 through 2022, the average ballot title readability grade was 18.

During this time, the Rhode Island ballot measure with the lowest ballot title grade level was Question 3 in 2018, which asked voters to authorize $43.7 million in bonds for environmental, water, and recreational projects, which had an FKGL grade of 4. Question 2 of 2018, a bond measure for higher education facilities, had the highest grade level at 25.

The last state to pass a ballot measure readability law was New York. In 2023, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed a bill that went into effect this year. The bill required state ballot measure questions to be written using clear language and not exceed an eighth-grade reading level. The bill also received a unanimous vote in the state legislature.

Also in 2023, North Dakota enacted a bill requiring summaries of ballot measures to be written in “plain, clear, understandable language using words with common, everyday meaning.”

In 2019, Maine passed a law requiring ballot questions to be written as simple as possible.

Like the Rhode Island bill, the New York law also included a specific grade-level requirement and based it on an index called the Automated Readability Index. The New York law defined the phrase “plain language” as “easily comprehended, concise language” that does not include semicolons, double negatives, or more than one passive sentence. The definition of plain language was not provided in the Rhode Island law. In Maine and North Dakota, the laws did not provide specific definitions or grade-level requirements.

As of June 20, 2024, Ballotpedia had tracked 320 legislative proposals concerning ballot measures, initiatives, veto referendums, referrals, local ballot measures, and recall elections in 41 states during 2024 legislative sessions. As of June 20, 27 bills had been enacted into law.

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