U.S. Voter Confidence is Linked to Positive Voter Experience, According to New Colorado State Study

Political scientists have found the key to bolstering confidence in the U.S. election system is directly linked to voters’ voting experience including casting a ballot on Election Day and the use of voting machines with verifiable results.

A study by Kyle Saunders, Colorado State University political science professor, and Lonna Rae Atkeson, professor at University of New Mexico, found that citizen confidence in the election system is dependent on three foundational principles:  procedural consistency, perceived fairness and accountability.  

"If voters do not have confidence that their vote is counted correctly, then the most fundamental aspect of representative democracy is in doubt," Saunders said.  

The study, "The Effect of Election Administration on Voter Confidence: A Local Matter?" considered voter confidence in the local administration of U.S. elections and is based on a random survey of voters following the 2006 midterm election in two competitive congressional districts.  

The findings demonstrated evidence that voters’ direct experience with the voting process influences their voter confidence. For example, the more poll workers are helpful and the more voters enjoy the voting method, the more confidence voters will have that their votes are counted accurately and fairly.    

In addition, not casting a ballot on Election Day but instead voting absentee or early resulted in less voter confidence, especially for absentee voting.

"It is important to look closely at why early and absentee voting produces less confidence. Many states are increasingly affording these options to their voters, yet our results suggest such options may be problematic," Saunders said.  

Lastly, when voters use a voting machine that they believe produces verifiable results, they are more confident in the election process.  

Researchers concluded that voter confidence can be improved by using voting technologies that produce verifiable results and by the increased visibility of local administrators who need to appear competent, non-partisan and helpful.  

The researchers made several suggestions to local policy makers including that local election administrators must work to create a positive voter experience. Several ways to enhance the voter experience include training poll workers so they appear competent, non-partisan and helpful to the voter. Ballots should be well designed, efficient and unambiguous with larger fonts and bubbles that voters pencil in as well as allowing voters multiple voting format choices.  

The study was published in the October 2007 issue of PS: Political Science & Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association. The association is the leading professional organization for the study of politics and has more than 14,000 members in 80 countries.