States Have Room for Improvement in Voter Guides

Just 9 states have "excellent" or "very good" voter guides explaining ballot initiatives, according to a new study.
by | September 14, 2012

Ballot initiatives are an integral part of state and local policymaking. Through them, voters amend constitutions, approve or reject taxes, overturn laws and recall controversial politicians. But states don’t always do a good job of informing the electorate what they’re voting on, according to a state-by-state review of official voter guides by Ballotpedia and the Lucy Burns Institute, the non-profit and nonpartisan group that runs the election database.

The study rated 41 states that have had initiatives since 2009 based on how they met six criteria: including the ballot initiative’s title, providing an explanation and analysis of the initiative, printing the exact text of the new law, presenting arguments for and against the initiative, offering the guide in multiple languages and including a fiscal note that attempts to estimate the law’s budgetary impact.

According to the study, only nine states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington) were rated “excellent” or “very good” by meeting five or six of the metrics. More than half, 24, received a “fair” or “poor” rating, meaning they had three or fewer of those features.

States miss the marks in a variety of ways. Less than half (18) included pro and con arguments for the initiative, while 23 did not. Even fewer (13) printed their voter guides in multiple languages; the study’s authors noted that Texas and Nevada in particular, which rank third and fifth respectively in percentages of their populations that are Spanish speakers, do not provide voter guides in Spanish. And despite tight state budgets and a focus on deficit reduction, only 11 states offered a fiscal note that explained an initiative’s likely impact on government finances. Two states, Michigan and New York, didn’t publish the title of ballot initiatives in their guide.

The study noted other room for improvement in how states approach voter guides. For example, mailing out voter guides can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet nine states still do not post them online. Illinois, which had the highest verified cost in mailing guides at $2 million, is one of them. Only six states publish information about ballot initiatives and political candidates in the same guide.

“Making ballot measure information readily available—and in multiple formats—leads to increased voter knowledge and, ultimately, citizen engagement,” said Bailey Ludlam, associate editor at Ballotpedia and a lead researcher on the study. “Hopefully this year, as states begin to release their 2012 voter guides, we'll see a greater effort on the part of state governments to make this information more widely available."

Ballotpedia contacted the secretary of state's offices in the 41 states that had ballot initiatives in 2009, 2010 or 2011 to compile its report.

The map below, courtesy of Ballotpedia, notes how well each state fared based on the study’s assessment of their voter guide. For a full explanation of the study’s methodology and findings, visit the Ballotpedia website.


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