Expert Commentary

Voting, polling problems and media coverage on Election Day: Research roundup

2012 review of research on Election Day-related issues.


As Election Day 2012 approached, the public and the news media prepared for a close election in which small numbers of votes in specific swing states may be decisive in the outcome. Legal battles may be a crucial part of resolving voting discrepancies in these key regions.

For those covering polling places and Election Day issues, Harvard Law School’s Citizen Media Law Project has issued an updated legal guide; it provides information for those who used photography or video to record activity in and around polling places during the 2012 election. Also see the Project’s summary of specific state laws.

In addition, the project, run by researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center, crowdsourced voter problems at polling places. The project aims to “provide heat maps that identify where it is easy and hard to vote in the U.S., just as Yelp! ratings help you figure out which restaurants are good and bad.”

The following are research-based reports and studies that provide further context, data and background on Election Day issues:


“Voting Problems, Polling Places and the Private Act of Voting”
Karpowitz, C.F.; Monson, J.Q.; Nielson, L.; Patterson, K.D.; Snell, S.A. Public Opinion Quarterly, Winter 2011, Vol. 75, No. 4, 659-685.

Findings: “Voters whose political opinions were not aligned with the predominant norms of their community were less likely to trust the privacy of the ballot booth: Only 65% of voters in the political minority said they were very confident that their ballot would be counted accurately; by comparison, 86% of voters in the political majority felt the same way… When asked what they valued most when they came to vote, 43% of voters included privacy as one of their two most important values. A field experiment revealed that, if no special measures were taken to increase privacy in a traditional voting setting, “fully one-quarter of political minority voters expressed concern that a poll worker could observe their choices, and more than a fifth of minority voters worried about other voters being able to see their ballot.” In a voting center that had increased privacy safeguards, a “much smaller percentage of minority voters believed it was likely that another voter or poll worker was able to glimpse at their ballots.” … In the traditional voting setting, poll workers crossed into privacy zones an average of nine times every 35 minutes, compared to just once in a center with enhanced privacy protections. Similarly, in a normal voting setting, voters enter the privacy zone of others nearly six times per observation period, but just over three times per observation period in the room with enhanced protections.”


“Interview Mode Affects the Case of Exit Polls and Early Voting”
McDonald, M.P.; Thronberg, M.P. Public Opinion Quarterly, Summer 2012, Vol. 76, No. 2, 326-349.

Findings: “Our multivariate analysis reveals consistent patterns of item response across two elections: elections where the number of early voters doubled and where the number of phone survey states expanded…. Social desirability bias, whereby respondents give socially correct answers within society’s norms, is observed in numerous contexts. Respondents are more willing to provide affirmative answers to sensitive questions on a self-administered questionnaire than to a live interviewer…. Respondents are much less likely to provide their family income to a live interviewer than on the paper questionnaire. Our multivariate analyses suggest that respondents of different ages, genders, races and political persuasions may possess different cultural norms about the propriety of revealing their income. Some questions on the exit-poll questionnaire require cognitive reflection, such as why a voter made their selection. Here, respondents may engage in satisficing, which in this context is respondents’ inclination to skip a question rather than reflect upon an answer.”


“Voter ID, Voting Rights and Election 2012: Research Roundup”
Journalist’s Resource, August 22, 2012.

Abstract: Given that a series of restrictive voting laws — often involving ID requirements — have been implemented recently in many states, non-partisan observers have said that the 2012 campaign cycle does bear particular scrutiny…. Despite concerns over access to this basic democratic right, the American public continues to support voter ID laws in general. An October 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that “by 77% to 20%, voters favor a requirement that those voting be required to show photo ID. Opinion about this is little changed from six years ago, when 80% of voters supported voter photo ID requirements.” The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is active in a number of cases involving issues such as absentee ballots and violations of voter roll procedures. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law has many resources on these issues; the Center tracks important state cases and writes reports on related issues, such as “The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification.” The League of Women Voters also has a wealth of resources and carefully monitors voting-related news.


“Validation: What Big Data Reveal About Survey Misreporting and the Real Electorate”
Ansolabehere, S.; Hersh, E. Political Analysis, Autumn 2012, Vol. 20, No. 4, 437-459.

Abstract: “From consistent overreporting of voter turnout, it is evident that responses on survey items may be unreliable and lead scholars to incorrectly estimate the correlates of participation…. We parse overreporting due to response bias from overreporting due to inaccurate respondents. We find that nonvoters who are politically engaged and equipped with politically relevant resources consistently misreport that they voted. This finding cannot be explained by faulty registration records, which we measure with new indicators of election administration quality. Respondents are found to misreport only on survey items associated with socially desirable outcomes, which we find by validating items beyond voting, like race and party. We show that studies of representation and participation based on survey reports dramatically misestimate the differences between voters and nonvoters.”


“Voter Disenfranchisement and Policy Toward Election Reforms”
Friedman, A.K. Review of Policy Research, November 2005, Vol. 22, No. 6, 787-810.

Abstract: “How did poverty, race, population density, and other demographic characteristics affect disenfranchisement in the 2004 presidential election? I argue that there are two types of disenfranchisement: partisan disenfranchisement, which targets Democrats, and structural disenfranchisement, which targets members of low-status groups. Drawing demographic data from the United States census in 2000, and voting data from the secretaries of state websites, I use a negative binomial regression to correlate these variables with the incidence of voter disenfranchisement as collected by the Election Incident Reporting System, for the three “swing” states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, with the “safe” states of California and Texas as controls. The results of this analysis indicate that disenfranchisement increases with population density, Black population, Democratic loyalty, and as the margin of victory decreases. Income and education also correlate with an increase in reported incidents of disenfranchisement, but that likely reflects the failings of self-report data.”


“Are Americans Confident Their Ballots Are Counted?”
Alvarez, R. M.; Hall, T.E.; Llewellyn, M.H. The Journal of Politics, July 2008, Vol. 70, No. 3, 754-766.

Abstract: “Building on the literature that investigates citizen and voter trust in government, we analyze the topic of voter confidence in the American electoral process. Our data comes from two national telephone surveys where voters were asked the confidence they have that their vote for president in the 2004 election was recorded as intended. We present preliminary evidence that suggests confidence in the electoral process affects voter turnout. We then examine voter responses to determine the overall level of voter confidence and analyze the characteristics that influence the likelihood a voter is confident that their ballot was recorded accurately. Our analyses indicate significant differences in the level of voter confidence along both racial and partisan lines. Finally, we find voter familiarity with the electoral process, opinions about the electoral process in other voting precincts, and both general opinions about voting technology and the specific technology the voter uses significantly affect the level of voter confidence.”


“Long Lines at Polling Stations? Observations from an Election Day Field Study”
Spencer, D.M.; Markovits, Z. Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy. March 2010, Vol. 9, No. 1, 3-17.

Abstract: “This pilot study represents the first systematic attempt to determine how common lines are on Election Day, at what times of day lines are most likely to form, what are the bottlenecks in the voting process, and how long it takes an average citizen to cast his or her ballot. This study highlights the importance of evaluating polling station operations as a three-step process: arrival, check-in, and casting a ballot. We collected data during the 2008 presidential primary election in California, measuring the efficiency of the operational components of 30 polling stations across three counties. We found statistically significant, and meaningful, variation in the service rates of poll workers and voting technology.”


“Cortisol and Affective Response to Presidential Election Result News”
Strauts, E.; Blanton, H.; Perez, M. American Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper.

Abstract: “Citizens’ reactions to election results provide evidence of psychological and physiological involvement with the democratic process, and these have implications for their future participation in the electoral system and selective avoidance of opposition media. The current study examined the biological marker cortisol, which is produced by physiological stress. Soon after the 2008 general presidential election, undergraduate participants were brought into the lab ostensibly to participate in a study about journalistic reporting decisions. Participants were asked to read an article either from the travel section of the newspaper, or about Democrat Barack Obama winning the Presidency. The election condition, as expected, showed post experiment cortisol levels higher than the travel condition. In the election condition, moderators of cortisol response were identified. Higher Republican party identification strength was related to increased cortisol response, whereas lower levels of partisan opposition to Obama predicted decreased cortisol response compared to the average response. The same pattern was observed for affective response, with negative (positive) affect being related to opposition to (support of) Obama. Affective mediation of the cortisol response of partisans was not supported.”

Tags: presidency, research roundup, privacy

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