Voter guides are meant to be helpful tools—they’re publications explaining local or state measures, in detail, while also giving a brief biography of candidates running for office. They’re supposed to come in the mail before an election. For many, voter guides are life lines before heading to the polls to cast their votes.
Be honest—have you actually read your voter guide, front to back? What do you think? Did you find it helpful? That’s what Greenlining’s Claiming our Democracy team is trying to figure out.
“We want to know how voter guides are being used in certain communities and how they can be more accessible,” said Ratha Lai, Program Coordinator.
The team has been hosting community input sessions throughout the state—what they’ve heard from voters isn’t good.
“The problem is, well, voters complained voter guides are complex, confusing and written in legalese,” said Michelle Romero, Policy Director.
So far there have been four meetings. “We had one with African American seniors in South L.A. We did one with a disability advocacy group in South L.A. We had another one with a senior elderly women’s group in Oakland and one with the Cambodian community in Santa Ana—that one was really eye-opening,” said Lai.
“Specific words like “phone bank” or the “green party” don’t really translate to Khmer, the language spoken by Cambodians or any other language. They’re wonky words. Language like this cuts off access to voter guides,” said Lai.
“This isn’t a problem just for Cambodian voters. English language voter guides are also written in a level of English that is inconsistent with the average reading level of most adults. What ever happened to plain language?! Voter guides aren’t meant to intimidate the masses,” said Romero.
Through the sessions, Greenlining has also learned that technology can play a larger role.
“It seems more and more priorities should be shifting towards really trying to find an interactive voter guide that could be found on-line that could be downloaded, that could be put on iPads and phones, that could be made much more accessible to voters so it could be manipulated, if the print needs to be bigger, or what not,” said Lai.
“It’s hard to make an educated and informed decision when you have a voter guide that’s confusing or complex. People want to vote but they want to make a smart decision. They want to vote with confidence in their decisions and right now the voter guide doesn’t bring them that confidence.”
Greenlining hopes to hold two more input sessions bringing the total to six. The organization, in partnership with the Future of California Elections, which California Forward is also a part of, will present a set of recommendations to the Secretary of State later this year, based on the feedback from voters.
“Recommendations include adding graphs to voter guides instead of just straight up numbers. Also voter guides should be organized by category. So, if someone is concerned about healthcare, you can find propositions on that issue really easily,” said Lai.
“We believe that by working in partnership with other civil rights, good government and election groups, we don’t have to accept the status quo-we can actually start to identify solutions to these problems. And perhaps, our voter guides might start speaking our language,” said Romero.