Civic Design

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

It comes down to plain language

The ballot does not stand alone in its importance in an election. It is part – perhaps the center, but still only one part – of a larger “ecosystem” of an election that includes election materials like signs, notices, instructions, and information pamphlets.

This week I’ve been sitting as a member of the San Francisco Ballot Simplification Committee. Oddly, this city-chartered committee isn’t about simplifying ballots. But it does create election materials that complement the ballot: the committee writes digests of measures that are on the ballot. These digests, usually around 300-400 words long, are printed in a voter information pamphlet (VIP). The VIP is mailed to all active registered voters at least 30 days before Election Day.

The original legislation can be from 2 pages (for a voter initiative) to 300 pages (for a school district bond measure) long. Most voters won’t read that material, even though it is reasonably available. In San Francisco, voters have come to rely on the digests of the measures as a source of objective, unbiased, and plain explanations of the ballot propositions.

The basic skeleton is even simple. Each digest has 4 parts:

The way it is now
The proposal
A “yes” vote means
A “no” vote means

Using that outline, the 5 people on the committee work to capture the essence of each measure. See some examples here. A lot of what we do is translating. For example, today we worked on digests for three measures that if passed would change property and business taxes in the City. How do you talk about exemptions? We attempted to simplify to say who would and wouldn’t have to pay. Should we use the word “ceiling” or “limit” to talk about what defines the maximum revenue of a small business? (We chose “limit.”)

Though San Francisco is pretty progressive about drafting legislation that is accessible, terms of art (“budget set-aside”), domain jargon (can you say “total property tax increment funds”?), and purposeful obfuscation do creep in. Our goal is to create a text that is plain enough to understandable by the average 8th grader. Sometimes we succeed.

We’ll be done with the digests for November on Friday, August 8.

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