Voter Guide vs Sample Ballot

Leslie Graves

Distinguishing a Voter Guide from a Sample Ballot

Even some of the most politically astute people use the terms Voter Guide and Sample Ballot interchangeably. The truth is, they are distinctly different ways to help voters navigate their ballots and make confident, informed decisions.

Each tool has its advantages. For newspaper founders, editors, reporters and staff, a voter guide is a building block of sustainability, a voter guide is an essential journalistic tool and a means to sustain financial health. Voter Guides are a news organization’s preferred way to provide a high value, high return public service to their readers, a voter guide is the method of choice. 

To understand why, let’s look at how the products differ.

Voter guides come from official or unofficial sources. State election officials may publish “official voter guides” that are usually available online. Unofficial voter guides come from many sources including newspapers and digital newsrooms. 

Regardless of the source, the hallmark of a good voter guide is that it offers robust information on the candidates and ballot measures before voters.

For candidates, that means including their biographical information and an overview of what the office they are seeking actually does. A high value guide also gives voters information about candidates’ policy positions–sometimes, but not always, in a question and answer format.

Like voter guides, sample ballots can also come from official or unofficial sources. The hallmark of a sample ballot is that the information it provides is location based (directly related to a specific address.) 

Once a voter provides their address, a well-designed sample ballot will scan its database for elections and provide the voter a comprehensive list of every contest on that voter’s ballot. 

Unlike a voter guide, a sample ballot does not include robust information on candidates, offices, and issues. 

For voters, the ideal information source about their ballots would include the best elements of a robust voter guide and a sample ballot. This ideal publication would:

  • Cover all the contests with robust information on all the candidates
  • Tie-back to the voter’s residential address, so they can see exactly which contests and candidates are on their ballot
  • Be available in a print and a digital version
  • Come in the voter’s preferred language
  • Be published far enough in advance of the election to allow the voter plenty of time to study it

Newspapers are the logical choice to produce such guides. Not only can they provide all of this information in a variety of formats, they can add what no special interest or government-produced guide can: context.

Newspaper-produced guides are built on journalistic principles – fairness, objectivity, and most crucially, asking candidates tough questions on how the candidates propose to deal with the issues on voters’ minds. 

There are also the business advantages. Newspaper-published guides build on – or repurpose – the reporting they’ve already done on candidates and issues.  This saves time and costs, even as it takes that content and puts it into a more evergreen format.

These best-of-both-worlds guides can be distributed through a variety of channels – print, online, in newsletters or promotional emails, and so on. They reach readers where they are, in their preferred format, making them not just evergreen, but shareable beyond the subscriber base.

Another benefit of this evergreen, multi-channel product? It’s a natural venue for local advertisers. Sponsoring a guide that will be in voters’ hands for a month or more is a great, low-cost way to reach customers.

A robust voter guide, then, serves both the public interest in providing a fully transparent ballot, and the new organization’s sustainability through journalistic effectiveness and financial health.

It’s time for newspapers and newsrooms to take up this opportunity – for their readers, their communities, and themselves. Ballotpedia is here to help.