Civic Design

Monday, November 30, 2009

Top 10 guidelines for creating a plain language ballot

In June 2009, Ginny Redish and Dana Chisnell presented the findings from research they did for NIST on the language of instructions on ballots at the Usability Professionals' Association conference. In addition to their many fascinating findings, they distributed a handout with quick tips for creating and presenting plain language instructions for ballots. Here they are: 

What to say and where to say it

1. At the beginning of the ballot, explain how to vote, how to change a vote, and that voters may write in a candidate.

2. Put instructions where voters need them. For example, save the instructions on how to use the write-in page for the write-in page.

3. Include information that will prevent voters from making errors, such as a caution to not write in someone who is already on the ballot.

How to say it

4. Write short sentences.

5. Use short, simple, everyday words. For example, do not use "retention" and "retain." Use "keep" instead. For another example, use "for" and "against" for amendments and measures rather than "accept" and "reject."

6. Write in the active voice, where the person doing the action comes before the verb.

7. Write in the positive. Tell people what to do rather than what not to do.

8. When giving people instructions that are more than one step, give each step as an item in a numbered list. Do not number other instructions. When the instructions are not sequential steps, use separate paragraphs with bold beginnings instead of numbering.

What to make it look like

9. Keep paragraphs short. A one-sentence paragraph is fine.

10. Separate paragraphs by a space so each paragraph stands out on the page.

- From Redish, Chisnell, Newby, Laskowski, and Lowry, Use of Language in Ballot Instructions, NIST IR 7556.

To see all 28 guidelines, go to The guidelines are the last appendix in the report, pages 189-190. 

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