Joint Oversight Hearing Statement on Statewide Voter Turnout

Joint Oversight Hearing Statement on Statewide Voter Turnout

Type: 
News


Joint Oversight Hearing: Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments & Assembly Committee on Elections and Redistricting
Senator Ben Allen and Assembly Member Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, Chairs

Statewide Voter Turnout
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
State Capitol, Room 3191
Sacramento, California 95814 

Testimony by Jennifer Pae
League of Women Voters of California Education Fund

Introduction

Good

afternoon. My name is Jennifer Pae and I am the Project Manager for Voter

Service and Education at the League of Women Voters of California Education

Fund (LWVCEF). For the past 95 years, the League of Women Voters has advocated

to expand and protect the right to vote. The LWVCEF continues this commitment

by conducting voter services and civic education activities that build

participation in the democratic process. Before I begin to describe the

LWVCEF’s recent launch of the Best

Practices Manual for Official Voter Information Guides
project to increase

voter participation, I would like to share my personal story for some

perspective of why I came to this work and why it is so important.

This

past year my family celebrated the 40th anniversary of arriving in

the United States. My mother worked the night shift while going to school and

raising two young girls. She had been in this country for more than 25 years but

hadn’t registered to vote until I asked her to when I turned 18 years old.

Since then, she’s called me during every election to help her with her ballot.

Imagine

if voting in California was truly accessible to all eligible Californians. We

know the electorate is older, richer, and more educated, but imagine if the

barriers to participate were eliminated so those who vote less often−the young,

poor, and less educated−had an equal opportunity to get registered and vote.

When

we look at the changing demographics of our state, we know we have a lot of

work ahead of us to engage those that are most disenfranchised, particularly

young people and communities of color. This is why the LWVCEF is proud to

continue to partner with the State Library to distribute the Easy Voter Guide in five languages, which

has been community reviewed since 1994. Furthermore, we are excited about a

pilot partnership during the 2014 election between the League’s Smart Voter and
MapLight to produce an improved Voter’s Edge, a comprehensive nonpartisan

online voting guide about California’s elections including campaign funding

sources.

Best Practices

Manual for Official Voter Information Guides

Although

many factors contribute to low voter turnout, we believe that voter information

is an important tool to engage and expand the electorate. To continue this

tradition of providing accessible and quality voter information, LWVCEF has

released a Best Practices Manual for

Official Voter Information Guides
as an easy-to-use resource for election

officials and community groups working to educate California’s diverse

electorate. Through this initiative, we aim to make voter information more

effective, more inviting, and more useful by giving the right kind of

information to voters at the right time, in the right way.

Supported

by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation and in partnership with the Center

for Civic Design and the Future of California Elections, the manual was

informed by over a year’s worth of research with diverse stakeholders,

including election officials, community organizations, good government groups,

and frequent and infrequent voters from across California. The 100 research

participants, who included voters, potential voters, and infrequent voters that

closely matched California’s demographics, underpin all of the conclusions and

recommendations.

Our

research uncovered three main insights into improving voter information:

  1. Use

    of plain language can’t be overemphasized
  2. Good

    layout and thoughtful visual presentation are important for comprehension
  3. Voter

    guides are an important civic literacy tool.

Plain Language

Based

on our research and our experiences during the Easy Voter Guide community review sessions with adult literacy

students, it is clear that voters have a strong desire for information in plain

language. This includes providing the right information at the right level of

detail and organizing the information in an easy to follow path.

For

example, the Voter Bill of Rights can provide useful information, but it must

be accessible to voters. During an interview at the Berkeley Public Library, a

potential voter learned he was eligible to vote as an ex-felon after carefully

reading through it. In many of the interviews with infrequent voters and new

voters, they stopped to read the Voter Bill of Rights completely and carefully.

However, they also found it hard to read and asked questions about what it

said. A bilingual low-literacy participant stated “These are things I need to

know…but some of them are confusing.”

Oftentimes

election terms were also difficult to understand. Research participants were

unfamiliar with important terms that are key to understanding elections. As a

result, some participants skipped or misunderstood sections of the voter guide.

The most complicated election term was the description of the “Top Two Primary”;

ultimately, this language had to be removed from the voter guide prototype

because it was so confusing. Research participants needed hints to help them

interpret the information, such as descriptions of the offices: what do they

do? How will the winner of the contest impact my life? Why should I care?

We

also know that if the voter information is written in plain language, this

provides better quality translations. During a potential voter interview in Los

Angeles with our partners at the Center for Asian Americans United for Self

Empowerment (CAUSE), a recently naturalized immigrant was reviewing a prototype

voter guide in Chinese and she became frustrated. She said “this makes me

angry” because the translations were so poor she couldn’t follow along and felt

defeated.

Layout and

Visual Presentation

In

all of the research, participants wanted, liked, and used a table of contents

when one was available. Voters want a roadmap to the voter guide and the

elections process. They relied heavily on visual cues and the typography. The

layout and visual presentation greatly influences whether the voter information

will be easy to read and understand.

In

the first round of user research, we asked participants to select pages from a

book of samples that they would want in their own voter guide. The five pages

participants chose most often all used visual layout effectively. In

particular, the candidate and ballot information should be organized in a way

that helps voters see both the overview and details. We shouldn’t let the

voters get lost in the details when there are many candidates and measures in

any given election.

Furthermore,

we recognize many counties are limited in their flexibility of design and

layout based on what is required of them and how many pages they can afford. From

the size of font (which should be at least 12 points) to the proper inclusion

of a sample ballot, counties need the resources to provide voter guides that

will effectively inspire and educate voters to participate in our elections.

Civic Literacy

The

evidence from our research suggests that an official voter guide is an

information device, not an engagement device. However, it may be the only source

of voter information that many people see and should be used as a tool for

civic literacy, especially recognizing that they may be a recent immigrant or

someone who did not graduate from high school and attend college and may not be

familiar with the election process. The voter guide can be a tipping point,

particularly for those who may see it from a family member or friend, if people

can be encouraged to take the first step and read it. A young potential voter

stated, “This is stuff I hadn’t thought about or paid much attention to…voter

rights, measures. I might try to do more research. More interested in voting

now.”

During

the interviews, we found that new and infrequent voters didn’t know where to

start. Until people start to make sense of why they want to participate, the

details can be confusing. It takes a lot of energy and desire to take the

information apart, and voters sometimes need more than even the best guide can

deliver. Participant after participant in the research stumbled over aspects of

elections from terminology to a basic understanding of the process. It was

clear they needed personalized information to help guide them through the

election. For example, making the availability of languages visible in all

versions of the voter guide and a voter’s polling place information clearly

visible.

It

was also a challenge to learn about and compare candidates and how ballot

measures will affect them. It is important to use the structure and content of the

voter guide to close civic literacy gaps. One of the most helpful tips we can

provide is to ensure the voter information has been tested with low-literacy

and limited English proficiency voters so it meets their needs.

Recommendations

We

hope that using our recommendations will lead to voter information that raises

voter confidence and increase participation. Fortunately, some of these ideas

are already being implemented in one or more California counties. However, some

of these recommendations face regulatory, legislative, or financial barriers.

We look forward to partnering with you to identify these barriers and make the

necessary changes to better serve California’s current and future voters.

 

League to which this content belongs: 
California