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. Such comments and events have the potential to undermine Americans’ confidence that U.S. elections are run fairly — concerns usually brought up by those whose candidate lost the election, as Paul Gronke, Michael W. Sances and Charles Stewart III wrote here last month. 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.
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.
What have we recommended? Over the past eight years, Bernalillo County has professionalized poll worker training, with specific training for each job, and with each poll worker assigned to a single job during voting. The county moved voting to larger and more accessible locations, with enough parking, and more effectively moved voters through voting. Voters can use a “voter line” app that points them to the closest polling location with the shortest line; a faster experience is typically a better one for the voter.