Very often, when you listen to election policy debates, you hear one (and usually both) sides invoking the value of “voter confidence”. The term isn’t very well-defined, but it is thought to capture a general sense of satisfaction with and acceptance of the election system. It also has a certain appeal; if democracy rests on the consent of the governed, confidence can be considered an important measure of the degree to which voters accept the results of elections and the frequent transfer of power between parties or individuals who otherwise fiercely disagree. Fortunately, voter confidence has been a popular subject of study by political scientists, who examine responses to public opinion surveys to divine how confident (or not) voters are about voting systems and procedures.
One of the most recent contributions to this literature will come at this weekend’s 2012 meeting of theMidwestern Political Science Association (MPSA), where Charles Stewart of MIT is presenting a paper he wrote with Michael Sances entitled Partisanship and Voter Confidence, 2000-2010. Here’s the abstract:
We ask, to what degree is voter confidence in the fairness and trustworthiness of election procedures driven by a respondent’s satisfaction with the outcome of an election, as opposed to more general trust in government or objective features of the polling place, such as voting technology? Using data drawn from approximately 30 national public opinion surveys conducted over the past decade, we find that there is a consistent relationship between voting for the winning candidate and the degree of confidence expressed in election administration. However, this confidence varies as a function of question wording and electoral context. Respondents are generally more confident in the quality of the vote count locally than nationally. They are responsive to electoral results at the state and national levels in forming their judgments. And, rather than being reassured by or distrustful of different types of voting machines (paper vs. DREs), respondents appear to lose confidence in elections by virtue of change itself.
All of this is fascinating, especially the impact of election results and partisanship on voter confidence (the so-called “winner’s effect”), but I was most struck by that last conclusion – that change itself contributes to a loss of confidence. Sances and Stewart look at that issue in more detail when discussing the impact of voting technology – specifically, the impact of counties moving to or from direct recording electronic (DRE, or “touchscreen”) machines on confidence measures, especially in the 2008 election.