The Impact of Language on Participation
Is ballot question language a barrier to participation in direct democracy elections? Does language complexity lead to higher roll-off for direct democracy measures? This chapter answers these questions by focusing on characteristics of the ballot, namely grade level and position, to explain participation. Ballot measures are far more complex than traditional candidate elections. These measures are composed of a question asked of the public in a variety of circumstances and with few ‘traditional’ cues such as party identification, incumbency and name recognition. The results in this chapter demonstrate that ballot measure readability is an important detriment to participation in these elections. The wording of some of these questions leads to concerns about whether Americans truly understand what they are voting for and why participation on ballot measures is lower than for higher offices. Further, as this chapter will demonstrate, the grade level of these questions is often far above the reading levels of average citizens. The complexity of ballot language leads to ballot roll-off. This study uses the ballots themselves as the unit of analysis from 1997 to 2007, addressing ballot roll-off as a function of readability and ballot characteristics.