Alvarez, Atkeson and Hall on Bernalillo County’s Efforts to Improve Voter Confidence


[Image via affordablehousing]

Political scientists R. Michael Alvarez, Lonna Rae Atkeson and Thad Hall – friends, colleagues and electiongeeks all – have a fantastic new piece in the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog examining how Bernalillo County (Albuquerque), NM has worked to improve voter confidence by addressing key aspects of its election process. Here’s what they have to say:

This August, the U.S. election system was cast into doubt. Donald Trump suggested that it might be rigged – presumably to help Hillary Clinton win. Russians allegedly hacked voter registration systems in Arizona and Illinois, although, according to the FBI, they didn’t succeed in tampering with voter rolls.

Part of the reason that U.S. democracy is so stable — and that citizens accept election results instead of, say, rioting and setting the Capitol on fire — is that most American voters are confident that their ballots are counted accurately in our elections.  That’s what we’ve found in our research over the past decade. And that confidence can be improved or harmed by how state and local election officials manage elections — whether their favored candidates win or lose.

We’ve found that when voters have problems voting — if, for example, they find the ballot confusing, poll workers unhelpful, long waits in line or uncertainties about whether their absentee ballots were received or counted by the election office — they probably will be less confident that their vote will be counted correctly.Our research suggests that a bad experience at the polls can reduce voter confidence by nearly 10 percent. And absentee voters are less confident than in-person voters.

Improving voter confidence in a N.M. county

Over the past decade, we have systematically observed elections in Bernalillo County, N.M., using a methodology described in our book “Evaluating Elections.” At the same time, we have surveyed those voters on how confident they felt about the election’s integrity. From our observations, we’ve recommended changes in how voting was conducted. Because County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver put into place many of our recommendations, the surveys have shown us whether — and how — improving election administration improves voter confidence.

Let’s look more closely at a couple of other important examples — such as the hot-button issue of voter ID. Voters are particularly sensitive to how they are asked to prove their identity at the polls. Whatever the state’s policy might be, officials need to implement it consistently in every voting location and with every voter.

Here’s how we measured voter confidence

Since 2006, we have asked voters in Bernalillo County, “How confident are you that your vote was counted as intended?” Respondents can answer: very confident, somewhat confident, not too confident or not at all confident.

That’s how we found that better administrative practices increased voter confidence. [The graph below] shows the percentage of voters who were very confident their vote was counted correctly. Voter confidence has increased from 39 percent in 2006 to 57 percent in 2014, despite a mix of Democrat (2006, 2008, 2012) and Republican (2010, 2014) winners across elections.

Percent of Voters Very Confident Their Ballot was Counted Accurately in Bernalillo County, 2006-2014
Data: Bernalillo County Election Administration Surveys 2006-2014 Figure: Lonna Rae Atkeson

So what should election officials do this November?

Take these simple, evidence-based steps:

  1. Train poll workers to do the job consistently and effectively. How voters and poll workers interact has a profound influence on voter confidence. And poll workers who understand their important role perform their jobs better.
  2. Improve transparency. Election offices can do a number of things. For instance, they should make sure their website is user-friendly and easy to navigate. Or they could install webcams so that citizens can observe vote counting and other processes in the central election office.
  3. Report timely, accurate data at the precinct level, disaggregated by voting mode (i.e., in-person or absentee). Election “geeks” need accurate and disaggregated data for their analyses. That’s standard for identifying possible voting problems.
  4. Audit election practices throughout the election. Post-election ballot audits can offer evidence that election results have integrity. Respond to problems promptly and actively. Track complaints and problems on social media and other tools, and respond quickly.

I have long been a fan of the work Mike, Lonna and Thad do in the field, and I am delighted to see them find yet another way to share their experience and expertise with the elections community. Their advice – think about (and train for) the election process from the voter’s point of view, collect data on everything you can and then analyze and share it as much as you can – is invaluable advice in any election, not just high-stakes votes like 2016.

40 days and counting until Election Day. Stay tuned …

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