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Gunning Through the Fog: Plain English and Voter Website Readability*

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[Image courtesy of centerforplainlanguage.org]

Last week, I blogged about the readability of state ballot initiatives - and judging from the discussion in the comments (and the traffic in the Twittersphere) it's an object of tremendous interest.

You can imagine my excitement, then, when a fellow election geek forwarded me a new article by the Plain Language at Work newsletter that assesses the readability of state voting information websites.

The article is absolutely jam-packed with information - not just the readability scores themselves but also the discussion of different readability techniques. In particular, I was fascinated to learn that there is a test known as Gunning's Fog Formula that uses sentence length and word complexity to assign readability scores.

While no computational readability score can take the place of user-centered testing - a fact that my new friends and colleagues in the usability community respectfully but insistently observed in response to last week's post - they can be a quick way to "gut check" individual sites and make some cross-state comparisons. Thus, while one never wants to "write to the formula", one can use the formula in conjunction with other usability tests to gauge how well users (in this case, voters) can navigate a given site.

In that spirit, I have reproduced below the newsletter article's Fog scores for state voter information websites plus explanatory notes. Their observations about the best sites - specifically, Pennsylvania's VotesPA.com - hold up well to this election geek/usability amateur's eye:

Voter's Information Fog Level Languages Online Forms
Alabama 17.4 1 Yes
Alaska 14.6 6 Yes
American Samoa 21.8 1 Yes
Arizona 15.7 1 Yes
Arkansas 15.5 1 Yes
California 18.5 7 Yes
Colorado 16.7 2 Yes+
Connecticut 22.9 2 Yes
Delaware 16.1 1 Yes
District of Columbia 15.2 1 Yes
Florida 16.4 2 Yes
Georgia 13.4 1 Yes+
Guam 13.9 1 Yes
Hawaii 12.4 5 Yes
Idaho 12.4 1 Yes
Illinois 17.2 2 Yes
Indiana 17.2 1 Yes+
Iowa 13.7 1 Yes
Kansas 13.8 1 Yes+
Kentucky 22.6 1 Yes
Louisiana 14.1 1 Yes
Maine 12.4 1 No
Maryland 18.2 1 Yes
Massachusetts 15.5 2 Yes
Michigan 13.3 1 Yes
Minnesota 18.0 6 Yes
Mississippi 15.0 1 No
Missouri 15.3 1 Yes
Montana 11.6 1 Yes
Nebraska 14.8 1 Yes
Nevada 16.2 2 Yes
New Hampshire 21.9 1 No
New Jersey 17.7 2 Yes
New Mexico 17.4 Google No
New York 16.4 2 Yes
North Carolina  15.4 2 Yes
North Dakota 18.2 1 N/A
Northern Marianas Islands 19.0 1 Yes
Ohio 16.0 1 Yes
Oklahoma 10.7 1 Yes
Oregon 14.4  2 Yes+
Pennsylvania  9.6 8 Yes+
Puerto Rico N/A 2 Yes
Rhode Island 13.1 2 Yes
South Carolina 19.2 1 Yes
South Dakota 12.5 1 Yes
Tennessee 14.7 1 Yes
Texas 14.4 2 Yes
Utah 13.7 1 Yes+
Vermont 13.7 1 Yes
Virginia 16.0 1 Yes
Virgin Islands 14.5 2 No
Washington 25.8 3 Yes+
West Virginia 11.5 1 Yes
Wisconsin 15.1 1 Yes
Wyoming 13.7 1 Yes

Notes:


  • Languages shows the number of languages offered on the Web site or in registration forms.
  • Online Forms shows whether the site makes forms available for voter registration, required in advance of an election.

  • Yes shows that the user can download a regisration form that can be printed, filled out, signed, and mailed in.

  • Yes+ shows that the voter can complete a registration online, with no form to send in.

  • No shows that the user cannot mail in a registration form. The state requires a face-to-face registration.

  • New Mexico's site offers the Google Translate feature with instant translations in over 50 languages.
  • North Dakota does not require voter registration. A voter just has to show up with a valid state ID. Most states now require an ID to vote plus some form of registration.
  • Puerto Rico's site is in Spanish only and cannot be measured with the Fog formula.

Want to try out the Fog and other readability tests yourself? check out this tool at Juicy Studios ... As always, caveats and alternate sites for such tests are not only welcome but encouraged in the comments.

*My apologies to our friends in the usability community for the pun in the post's title ... I suspect I am not the first person to make that pun - but I am confident I am the first person to make it on this blog :)

1 Comment


  • Thanks for the link and the table. What a range of results. In New Zealand we're in full election mode and we have pretty mixed readability results on candidates' web sites too.

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