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Viewpoint: Studying Election Reform
Election Reform Scholars Continue Work to Improve Election Administration

Matthew Corritore, Intern, and Molly Reynolds, Senior Research Coordinator, AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project


August 6, 2008

Topics covered: Election Fraud; Using Survey Data; Election Audits; Early and Non-Precinct Place Voting; Voter Registration; Economics of Voting Systems; Vote Centers; Poll Workers and Election Officials; Military and Overseas Voting; Voting Technology; Elections and Litigation; Ballot Design; Provisional Balloting; General Election Reform

As the nation gears up for the first presidential election since 1952 without an incumbent president or vice-president, the majority of the election-related discourse is focused on the candidates, their poll numbers, and the ins-and-outs of their campaigns as both contenders, and the other members of their parties, push on full speed ahead towards November. Lurking behind the political dimensions of this historic election, however, are a myriad of questions about whether the election system itself will function smoothly under pressure. Will voters have difficulties with their voting equipment, old and new? Will local election officials be able recruit enough competent poll workers? Will Indiana's recently-upheld voter ID law affect that state's election-and what will other states be able to learn from it?

These are only a few of the many questions which the work of an ever-growing community of election reform experts can help answer. One purpose of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project is to consolidate information about election reform research in an easily-accessible format, and as part of this effort, a set of current and recently completed research projects are outlined below. On topics ranging from using survey data to learn more about the field to the oft-explored realm of voting technology, this summary is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to provide a snapshot of the current state of play with the hopes of raising additional questions and opening new avenues of collaboration.

» Election Fraud - Thanks in part to the Supreme Court's May decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, questions related to identification, the challenges requiring it presents, and its potential for preventing fraud remain hot topics for researchers. Stephen Ansolabehere recently wrote two pieces on voter identification, one with Nathaniel Persily published in the Harvard Law Review (PDF) and the other to be published in the NYU Annual Review of Law. The Harvard piece examines popular perceptions of election fraud in the context of voter identification requirements. By analyzing public opinion data, Ansolabehere concludes that most people think fraud is extremely common, although these perceptions of fraud do not correlate with any kind of election law or election procedures, a finding pertinent to the Supreme Court's recent holding in Crawford. Also, Michael Alvarez, Thad Hall, and Susan Hyde published an edited book entitled Election Fraud: Detecting and Deterring Electoral Manipulation (Brookings, 2008). The book features a wide range of research on defining, measuring, and detecting election fraud in both the United States and abroad conducted by leading experts. Furthermore, Alvarez's other current work on voter identification and fraud issues involves studying some of the behavioral effects and the implementation issues associated with voter ID. One paper to come out of this research, written with Delia Bailey and Jonathan Katz, examines the effects of the Help America Vote Act's voter identification requirements on turnout. The authors conclude that, at the individual level, the strictest identification requirements decrease the participation of registered voters relative to simply stating one's name at the polls, and that these strict requirements depress turnout most among less educated, lower income voters. Other new research in this field will be presented at the American Political Science Association (APSA) Annual Meeting in August; Matt A. Barreto, Stephen A. Nuno, and Gabriel Sanchez are presenting a paper (PDF) entitled "The Disproportionate Impact of Photo Identification Requirements on the Indiana Electorate," in which they conclude there is evidence to suggest that Indiana's stringent identification requirements disenfranchise many citizens. Also at the meeting, David Andersen will discuss his work "A Peek Inside: How Provisional Ballots Can Cast Light Upon Voter ID and Turnout."

» Using Survey Data - Election reform researchers are making use of a wide variety of survey data to analyze issues and make recommendations for reform. Exit polling is one type of data being utilized; David Magleby conducted exit polling in 2006 in three Ohio counties and the state of Utah to gather from voters their impressions of the voting experience, as well as during the 2007 general and 2008 primary elections. The latter two rounds of polling had a particular emphasis on privacy concerns; he finds that concerns about new voting technology tended to be about the visibility of the touch screens to election workers or other voters using nearby voting machines. Magelby's data collection also involved an immediate post-election survey of the poll workers and structured observation of polling places, including recording where the voting booths were located, where the poll workers were, and the amount of space between booths. In addition, Ohio's voter identification requirements were observed in practice. Conclusions include that the voters very much like the new voting technology and have confidence in it, but their confidence is most strongly related to the experience they had with poll workers. A summary of those findings and additional work on the subject with Thad Hall and others will be soon published. Hall, J. Quin Monson, and Kelly Patterson are conducting a survey of Utahans to determine the factors that lead a voter to think that they had a successful voting experience. With Michael Alvarez and Morgan Llewellyn, Hall has also authored several articles that examine public opinion data on voter confidence. One, entitled "Are Americans Confident Their Ballots Are Counted?" and forthcoming in the Journal of Politics, concludes that a significant portion of voters do not have confidence that their vote will be counted properly, and that political identification and various demographic factors impact the likelihood a voter has confidence. They also wrote "Who Should Run Our Elections?: Public Opinion About Election Governance in the United States" which appears in the August 2008 issue of Policy Studies Journal, and in which they find, through surveys, that voters prefer elections be governed by elected, nonpartisan elections boards; they also argue that further research is needed to assess whether such election boards are actually the optimal administrative bodies to prevent fraud and bolster voter confidence. A third article, "On American Voter Confidence," will appear in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review. In it, the authors find that there was a significant and possibly growing percentage of voters before the 2006 election that were concerned their votes would not be counted properly. Furthermore, the study shows that variations in voter confidence fell along racial and partisan lines.

Under the direction of Stephen Ansolabehere, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study will serve as a valuable source for election data after the 2008 election, just as it did in 2006 and 2007. In the fall of 2008, 38 teams will pool their resources to record 38,000 to 40,000 observations; several teams will focus their efforts on questions related to voter expectations, experience, confidence, and opinions about election administration procedures. Ansolabehere also recently collaborated with Alvarez, Hall, and Charles Stewart to complete a survey of 8,000 voters who cast ballots on Super Tuesday 2008.

Another important source of election data is collected from election officials in the form of the Election Assistance Commission's Election Day Survey. A new grant program from the EAC will help five states collect better data at the precinct level for 2008, and in May 2008, a conference hosted by the Make Voting Work initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the JEHT Foundation brought together academics and administrators to explore ways to improve the entire survey instrument.

» Election Audits - Election audits can be important not just in the event of a disputed outcome, but also as a way to learn a variety of lessons that can be implemented in the future. Thad Hall, Michael Alvarez, and Lonna Rae Atkeson are examining these procedures, with particular emphases on Utah and New Mexico.

» Early and Non-Precinct Place Voting - As an increasing number of voters cast their votes outside of the traditional parameters of Election Day, researchers are continually presented with new questions about early and other non-precinct place voting. Recent research by Michael McDonald examines the compositional effects of early voting, focusing on whether certain demographic groups are impacted differently. Drawing on tracking he did throughout the primary season, Paul Gronke is working on an analysis of early voting and the 2008 presidential nomination process, as well as writing a monograph detailing the political conditions that lead to the adoption of non-precinct place and early voting and outlining various related legal and administrative procedures and outcomes. Gronke's other recent publications on this issue include an article, with Eva Galanes-Rosenbaum and Peter Miller, in the Annual Review of Political Science and a forthcoming piece, with Daniel Krantz Toffey, in the Journal of Social Issues that examines early voting from a psychological perspective. In addition, Gronke, Miller, and Kimball Brace are working on a Pew-funded study that examines how different approaches to absentee balloting can reduce voting mistakes. Lastly, in a paper to be presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Marc Meredith and Alan Gerber look at vote-by-mail proposals in "Electoral Institutions, Learning, and Political Participation: The Case of Vote-By-Mail Balloting."

» Voter Registration - With record numbers of individuals registering during the 2008 election cycle, registration issues remain an important component of election reform research. In addition to his work on early voting, Michael McDonald published an article in Political Behavior entitled "Portable Voter Registration" which shows that allowing voters to transfer their registration anywhere in the state increases turnout on Election Day. He also published an article on registration list reliability entitled "The True Electorate: A Cross-Validation of Voter File and Election Poll Demographics" in Public Opinion Quarterly in November 2007. Michael Alvarez and Thad Hall are also working on voter registration issues with a project examining Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky in an effort to improve the voter registration process and the implications of same-day voter registration. Another related project-on registration list quality-in is progress; Stephen Ansolabehere and Alan Gerber are conducting a comprehensive audit of four different cities and counties and examining the quality of registration lists in each.

Issues related to the National Voter Registration Act, which permits individuals to register to vote when they obtain or renew their drivers' licenses, will be the focus of several papers at the upcoming meeting of the American Political Science Association. David Hill has studied the effects of 1993's Motor Voter Act in his paper "Re-Examining Motor Voter: The Interactive Effects of Electoral Competition and Registration Reform on Turnout;" Doug R. Hess and Jody Herman will complement that work with "Evaluating the NVRA with County-Level Data and Indicators of Compliance: A Multi-Level Regression Analysis," and Margaret Groarke is examining the implementation of the Motor Voter Act in her paper "NVRA: The Impact of Variations in Implementation and Purging."

» Economics of Voting Systems - Many local jurisdictions are facing decisions about purchasing new voting machines to meet new mandates and increasing numbers of voters casting their ballots before Election Day simultaneously. Robert Stein has been researching the economics of voting systems, with a focus on resource allocation between Election Day and the pre-election period.

» Vote Centers - An increasingly popular option for jurisdictions--both before and on Election Day--is vote centers, which give voters the choice of visiting one of any number of large polling sites rather than their local precinct. Robert Stein and colleague Greg Vonnahme recently published an article on vote centers entitled "Engaging the Unengaged Voter: Vote Centers and Voter Turnout" in the Journal of Politics; Stein and Vonnahme find significant evidence that vote centers increase voter turnout generally, with particular effects on infrequent voters.

» Poll Workers and Election Officials - Quality poll workers and election officials are two of the most critical components to ensuring a smooth Election Day. Bonnie Glaser and her colleagues at the Election Administration Research Center at UC-Berkeley are conducting a longitudinal study of poll worker training in California, with an emphasis on variation in trainings both among counties and over time. Thad Hall, meanwhile, is working with a team at Brigham Young University to use survey data to study poll workers in a variety of contexts. Along with J. Quin Monson and Kelly Patterson, he published an article in PS: Political Science & Politics entitled "Poll Workers and the Vitality of Democracy: An Early Assessment." The piece examines the ways in which training affected how well poll workers adapted to new Diebold TSX electronic voting equipment during the 2006 primaries. The authors find that poll workers that felt more prepared after training had fewer problems opening and closing their poll locations with the new machines; likewise, those workers who felt well-trained had more confidence that votes would be counted properly. David Kimball, moreover, has examined various methods of selecting election officials and their party affiliation to discover if they have any effect on election outcomes. Also, Eric Fischer of the Congressional Research Service, in conjunction with researchers at Texas A&M, recently completed two surveys of local election officials. The surveys show that election officials tend to support the voting system that they themselves used over other types, although malfunctions with DRE and optical scan systems were the most common incidents reported. Also, election officials think the Help America Vote Act is making moderate improvements to the electoral process, despite a decline in support for the law from 2004 to 2006.

» Military and Overseas Voting - The unique challenges of military and overseas voters may be exacerbated this fall, given the historically high level of voter interest in the current contest. Glaser and the EARC recently conducted a study (PDF) for the Election Assistance Commission on military and overseas voting, specifically analyzing the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act by using case studies done in four states, as well as a survey of some voters in those states.

» Voting Technology - Voting technology continues to be one of the most prolific aspects of election reform research. Thad Hall and Michael Alvarez authored a book-length study of the issue, entitled Electronic Elections: The Perils and Promises of Digital Democracy (Princeton, 2008). The two have also examined voting technology in a comparative perspective, with a particular emphasis on Estonia, where internet voting is prevalent. Stein and Vonnahme have published, with Michael Byrne and Dan Wallach, an article entitled "Voting Technology, Election Administration and Voter Performance" in the April 2008 issue of the Election Law Journal examining the experiences of individual voters with touchscreen machines and optical scan ballots during the 2006 election; they conclude that many differences in voters' experiences using optical scan ballots versus electronic voting machines can be explained by how the election was administered. Other recent research by Michael Herron has touched on a number of timely technology-related issues; with Walter R. Mebane, Jr. and Jonathan N. Wand, Herron examines "Voting Technology and the 2008 New Hampshire Primary" (PDF), finding little evidence to suggest that the technology used to tabulate votes in specific wards favored one candidate or another in a variety of elections. In addition, with Laurin Frisina, James Honaker, and Jeffrey B. Lewis, he authored a paper (PDF) entitled "Ballot Formats, Touchscreens, and Undervotes: A Study of the 2006 Midterm Elections in Florida." In studying the 2006 congressional race in Florida's 13th District, the authors find that high levels of undervoting were likely due to an irregularity in the way two races were displayed on a single-ballot screen and conclude this problem distorted the outcome of the election.

» Elections and Litigation - While Bush v. Gore may be the only election-related case that persists in the popular memory, litigation continues to be a notable part of the election process and, thus, an important area of research. Edward Foley is examining the extent to which a state's election administration system is vulnerable to litigation both pre- and post-Election Day, with an emphasis on weak points in the law and administrative processes. Foley has also explored the history of litigation in the election administration process and potential federal litigation.

» Ballot Design - From Palm Beach County in 2000 to Sarasota in 2006, a number of recent election controversies have proven the importance of good ballot design. David Kimball and Martha Kropf are examining the extent to which ballot design and voting technology affect the ability of voters to successfully complete their ballots in a forthcoming work in American Politics Research entitled "Voting Technology, Ballot Measures and Residual Votes," and in a new book, Controversies in Voting Behavior, forthcoming from CQ Press. They have also published recommendations for successful ballot designs based on contemporary cases. Michael Herron is also studying ballot formats, examining how such displays affect voter choices, especially choices not to vote. Lastly, in a new book, Voting Technology: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot, Paul Herrnson and his co-authors examine the mistakes made when people vote, as well as discussing their extensive tests of a number of voting systems to measure how usable they are and how much confidence voters have in them. In addition, the book analyzes various vote verification mechanisms, including paper trails, which have received much attention in the media.

» Provisional Balloting - With large numbers of new registrants, and as more states implement identification laws, provisional ballots are likely to become an increasingly important part of the Election Day experience. David Kimball has studied provisional voting, specifically local variation in the rates of casting and counting provisional ballots. Edward Foley has also examined provisional voting looking at inadequacies in many states' laws governing the use of provisional ballots. In addition, he has written a chapter for a forthcoming general reference book on American elections that provides an overview of provisional voting as it currently stands. Also, at the upcoming American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Kimball and Brady Baybeck will be presenting a paper entitled "The Political Geography of Provisional Ballots." The piece examines the implementation of provisional balloting in urban areas using GIS software and voter files.

» General Election Reform - Bringing together important research in disparate topical fields, Caroline Tolbert, Bruce Cain, and Todd Donovan have edited a new book, Democracy in the States (Brookings, 2008), which examines various election reform issues Including poll workers, vote centers, and Election Day registration. Rebecca Morton has focused on the electoral process, with a particular emphasis on the effects of different electoral institutions on the choices of candidates and voters. Her new book, Analyzing Elections, is a comprehensive study of the American electoral process. A team of legal experts at Ohio State University is expanding upon work published in their book, From Registration to Recounts; they use the "ecosystem" approach by considering the election administration system as a whole and then studying the interrelation among the parts.

Note: As mentioned in the introduction, this summary is not meant to be exhaustive; if you are working on an election reform-related research project not mentioned here, please contact the authors.

Matthew Corritore and Molly Reynolds can be reached at mreynolds@brookings.edu

Viewpoint is an occasional feature in which members of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project staff analyze various election reform issues.
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