Why the Voter ID Confusion? Because the Rules Were Written at a 20th-Grade Reading Level.

Nov 4, 2016

Since early voting started last week, there’s been some confusion about the Texas voter ID law.

This summer, a court ordered the state to change the law and then spend $2.5 million educating voters about those changes. But, voting rights groups say that last part hasn’t gone so well, and some experts say the language used to communicate those changes could be part of the problem.

If look you up Texas' voter ID rules online, the first link you’ll probably be directed to is the state’s webpage on this. At the top there’s this paragraph about the voter ID law:

On August 10, 2016, a federal district court entered an order changing the voter identification requirements for all elections held in Texas … voters who possess an acceptable form of photo identification for voting listed below are still required to present it in order to vote in person in all Texas elections…Voters who do not possess an acceptable form of photo identification and cannot obtain one of the forms of acceptable photo identification listed below due to a reasonable impediment, may present a supporting form of identification and execute a Reasonable Impediment Declaration, noting the voter’s reasonable impediment to obtaining an acceptable form of photo identification, and stating that the voter is the same person on the presented supporting form of identification.

This is the kind of complex, legalese that is peppered through voter ID education materials, including Texas-issued posters hanging in polling places.

If you run that exact paragraph through a readability test, it turns out it’s written at a 20th-grade reading level, based on the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level readability metric. So, for a lot of people, it’s hard to follow.

A screenshot of the readability test.

“I wouldn’t say this is unusual or anything,” said Brian Berkenstock with the Center for Plain Language. “This is kind of standard bureaucratic text that we see a lot. And, for the most part, I think people are doing it the way they’ve always done it.”

The Center for Plain language is a national organization that works to help government and private businesses communicate more simply and clearly. 

Berkenstock says the language on the state's web page is “dense and difficult, and unnecessarily complex, even for solid readers.”

When Texas officials used words like “execute” when they meant “sign” or said “possess” when they meant “have” – it tends to throw most people off, Berkenstock explained.

“But it’s a standard kind of legal or government word to use, but it doesn’t mean it’s the best or the smartest thing to use,” he said.

He says the state could have used simpler language. They also could have just explained some of the complicated terms. Like when they said “reasonable impediment,” they could have given examples – like if someone lost their ID.

To be fair, the TV ad the state was required to air does fulfill all those requirements, but, unfortunately, the reach for this ad wasn’t that wide.

The Houston Chronicle reported the state didn’t take advantage of a discount offered by broadcasters that could have the state to air up to four times more. The state spent about $1.3 million on airing the ads on TV and radio, which experts say just wasn’t enough for a state as big and expensive as Texas.

Grace Chimene with the League of Women Voter of Texas has been looking at state and county websites to make sure the information there is accurate and understandable, because she says that’s where a lot of people have been – and will be – getting their information.

“Well it’s important that when we present information to voters in Texas that they are able to understand it, and there are a lot of voters out there who maybe just have a high school degree,” she said.

Chimene says those voters mostly likely had a hard time understanding a lot of the voter ID information.

“Well, I think it has been somewhat confusing even though it’s not that confusing,” said Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos.

Cascos leads the state agency tasked with taking care of all of this. He says he’s been trying to break things down as simply as possible when he talks to folks about the new rules, but he also has to keep things line with what a judge is telling the state to do.

“We have been doing our best in trying to disseminate accurate information in compliance with the court order,” he said.

Voting rights advocates say the state also missed another opportunity here: They could have reached out to groups that do this work as they were putting all this together.

“We think that the state could have done a lot more to engage other advocates and advocacy groups on the issue,” said Zenen Jaimes Perez with the Texas Civil Rights Project.

Perez says the state had opportunities early on to bring people in on the process of figuring out a good way to communicate the rules moving forward.

Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos speaks at an event at Huston-Tillotson University about early voting concerns on October 31, 2016.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

“There was hardly any time, or hardly any outreach, that the state did to an organization like ours or other organizations that do work with voters about what is the best language to be able to do it,” Perez said.

That’s why the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law launched a media campaign this week aimed at educating people about voter ID.

Unlike the state, Perez says they are using that special broadcasters deal in order to make sure their ads have a wide reach. Perez says they hope to clear up some of the ongoing confusion ahead of Election Day.

Berkenstock, with the Center for Plain Language, had one last point on all of this, too. The issue of simple language doesn’t just affect people who are maybe aren’t as educated as other people, he argues, it affects almost everyone.

Berkenstock says complicated legalese is also a barrier for highly educated people who maybe learned English as a second language.

“And the other group is just that – and actually I think this is the biggest group – is the people who can read well, who are educated, who read a lot, but, you know, were just really, really busy,” he said.

He says most people don’t have the time to sit there and figure out what a website says. And, when it comes to something as important as voting, he says officials should not rely on the hope that they do have that time. 

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