Science Sunday: For Voter Confidence, Little Things Mean a Lot

Researchers find less confidence among Colorado voters that their votes will be fairly counted.The Secretary of State’s office administers the fundamental building block of democracy, the voting process.

A Colorado State Auditor’s report, issued last week, emphasizes this role in the second paragraph of the report’s complete text:

The basic mission of the Department of State is “to collect, secure, and make accessible a wide variety of public records, ensure the integrity of elections, and enhance commerce.”

The audit report found a number of failures of the office, including some impinging on the voting experience. They found, for instance, that for the 2006 election, duplication of voter registration cards could permit some voters to vote twice — and, in fact, this occurred in a few cases. About 400 felons were registered to vote, along with about the same number of dead people. Some of the felons actually voted, but none of the dead people did — which may be a mixed blessing, depending on your ambitions for the afterlife.

But with 2.8 million registered voters in Colorado, it seems fair to ask whether it’s really such a big deal that a thousand or so individuals escaped the state’s vigilance, especially when so few of them participated in the electoral process that the actual impact on the election was negligible.

In short: So what?

But researchers from Colorado State University and the University of New Mexico have found that apparently even such seemingly minor glitches in the electoral system can have an outsized impact on voters’ confidence in the process.

In a paper in this month’s journal Political Science and Politics published by the American Political Science Association, CSU’s Kyle Saunders and UNM’s Lonna Rae Atkeson said:

“Voter confidence in our election system is crucial because elections are the link between citizens and their elected officials. In a representative democracy it is the ballot box that allows voters to send their elected leaders mandates for policies and hold them accountable.

“If voters do not have confidence that their vote is counted correctly then the most fundamental aspect of representative democracy, the direct election of its leaders, is in doubt and a crisis in democracy may be evident. From a normative perspective, even though there will always be election winners and losers, voters should still have the utmost confidence in their electoral system.”

The researchers found that voters in Colorado and New Mexico do in fact appear to be negatively influenced by their voting experience. They surveyed voters prior to the last election and found that only 42 percent of voters in the two states were “very confident” that their vote in 2006 would be counted as intended. This compared with 58 percent of voters nationally who were “very confident” in a similar 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center. They concluded:

“To begin, our findings demonstrate substantial evidence that voters’ direct experience with the voting process influences their voter confidence. The more helpful the poll workers and the more a voter enjoyed her voting method, the more confident she was that her vote counted. A more confusing ballot, however, lowered her voter confidence. Interestingly, we find that not casting a ballot on Election Day, but instead voting absentee or early, results in less voter confidence, especially for absentee voting.

“This last finding is extremely important because increasingly states are providing voters with these alternative means of voting, yet doing so actually reduces voter confidence in the process. Such a reduction in confidence is possibly due to the disconnection between the voter and Election Day activities. When people vote absentee, for example, they may be unsure whether their ballot arrives in time to be counted or they may be uncertain as to whether they filled out the form incorrectly, possibly invalidating their ballot.”

In addition:

“Voter attitudes are important to voter confidence. When voters use a voting machine that they agree produces verifiable results, they are more confident in the election process. Likewise, when they have a positive evaluation of their local county election official, they are also more confident in the election process.”

In getting people to vote, in getting them to participate at the very roots of democracy, little things mean a lot. County officials must be “competent, non-partisan and helpful.” Ballots should be reasonably simple. Voting machines should be reliable.

And, it goes without saying, voters shouldn’t feel that they’re waiting in line behind dead people and felons.