The last two presidential elections have raised serious concerns about the voting process. In 2000, the hanging chads and butterfly ballots of Florida became a symbol of flawed election technologies. In 2004, long lines and problems at the polls in predominantly black districts in Ohio raised the specter of disenfranchisement.
As the Nov. 4 election approaches, election observers and officials are bracing for a new wave of problems at the polls. (Indeed, early voting has already revealed some glitches.) The experience of recent years raises the question: Can Americans trust the voting system?
A study in the July 2008 issue of The Journal of Politics tackles that very issue. In "Are Americans Confident Their Ballots Are Counted?" authors R. Michael Alvarez, Thad E. Hall and Morgan H. Llewellyn use survey data to investigate the issue of voter confidence, which they define as the confidence the voter has that his or her vote is being counted as intended. The study finds that while the electorate in general is confident about the voting process, a crisis of confidence afflicts a segment of the voting population — a segment that is African American and Democratic.
The study used data collected from two surveys following the 2004 elections. Respondents were asked, "How confident are you that your ballot for president in the 2004 election was counted as you intended?"
The results were striking. Sixty-nine percent of whites said that they were "very confident" that their votes were counted as intended. By contrast, only 30 percent of African Americans reported that they were very confident. On the other end of the spectrum, only 8.5 percent of whites said that they were "not at all confident" or "not too confident," while 32 percent of African Americans said the same.
Why do blacks feel less confident about their votes than whites?
The authors posit that the tortured history of African-American enfranchisement may have something to do with it. "[C]onfidence rates may be affected by the historical differences brought on by past efforts on the part of white voters to disenfranchise African Americans via methods such as Jim Crow laws," they write.
Problems of a more recent vintage may also play a role. Hall, an assistant professor at the University of Utah, notes that myriad problems at the polls reported in 2000 and 2004 may factor into how African Americans see the voting process.
"If you think about some of these issues and tactics that are reported in the media, they focus mainly on how it affects African Americans," Hall said. The cascade of controversies could lower black voters' confidence.
The study finds that the problem of low voter confidence isn't restricted to African Americans. Partisan affiliation seems to have an effect, too.
Comparing across white Republican and white Democratic voters, the study found that white Republicans were more likely to be very confident about their vote. The authors ascribe this to a "winner's effect." The Republican victories in 2000 and 2004, not to mention election problems with "strong partisan overtones," may have lead to lower rates of confidence in the voting process among Democrats.
But the winner's effect is not static and could go the other way depending on which party wins. Alvarez, Hall and Llewellyn tested that hypothesis in a working paper published in August on the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project Web site investigating the effects of the 2006 midterm elections on voter confidence.
Sure enough, the study found that the Democratic takeover of the House and Senate was just the tonic for unconfident Democratic voters. "Democrats are significantly more likely relative to Republicans to increase their level of confidence following the 2006 election," the authors write. "Although Republicans are more confident than Independents and Democrats before the election, we find evidence that the confidence gap between Republicans and Democrats shrinks following the 2006 election."
The technology a voter uses also seems to have an effect on how confident they feel about their vote being counted. The study showed that those who voted using paper ballots were more confident than those who voted using punch-card, lever or touch-screen voting technologies. Absentee voters were also less trusting of the process than those who cast their votes in person. (Alvarez and Hall took on the subject of electronic voting at greater length in a book released earlier this year.)
Despite the findings, Hall stresses that what the study found does not necessarily amount to a crisis. "In general, people's confidence is pretty high," he pointed out, even as he acknowledged that there is room for improvement. While the low level of confidence among African-American voters in particular might cause alarm, especially for the effect it might have on turnout, this election poses an unprecedented scenario: the first African American to run for the presidency. Low confidence or not, a surge in black turnout is expected.
"If (Barack) Obama wins and if the election is problem-free, then confidence will increase markedly, among Democrats, and particularly African Americans," he predicted.
He added that a crushing Democratic win might also change how the issue of electoral reform is discussed, with progressive advocacy groups that typically champion the cause perhaps lowering the volume on their complaints and conservatives making more noise about it. (The recent conservative outcry over ACORN is an example that this might already be taking place.)
Asked for prescriptions on how to increase voter confidence, Hall proposed a few simple, broad fixes. "A couple of things: having good procedures in place, having transparency, having well-trained poll workers."
But perhaps just as essential is devoting more attention to the issue. The subject of voter confidence has actually been little studied by academic researchers. According to Hall, their paper is "one of the first ever written on the subject." Previous research into the issue of civic trust has focused more on trust in government — faith in democratic institutions — and not voter confidence — faith in the democratic process.
Hall said the focus on voter confidence gets to a crucial normative issue: as goes confidence, so — potentially — could go participation and legitimacy. As the authors found in a preliminary analysis, those who were less confident were also less likely to vote. "This is clearly a problem that could diminish turnout," he said.
Hall added that voter confidence touches on "a fundamental question about our democracy. We want people to be confident in how they choose their leaders."
Being suspicious may not be irrational (A Miller-McCune compendium)