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I Have CONFIDENCE ... in the Election System?

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[Image courtesy of samanthaellis]

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 the Midwestern 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:

[T]he results are mixed with respect to voter confidence and voting technologies in the 2008 election. First, it is the case that voters who used DREs were less confident their vote was counted as intended, compared to voters who used paper technologies. This is a confirmation of the conventional wisdom. However, the distrust of DREs was not purely due to former users of paper technologies expressing distrust of a new technology. The pattern is much more complicated than that. The least confident respondents were actually the small number of voters who lived in counties that used to vote on DREs, but had switched to paper ballots, mostly of the optically scanned variety (N=204). The next-least-confident voters were the much larger group who lived in counties that used to vote on paper, but then switched to DREs (N=1,651). Thus, low voter confidence in election administration seems not to have been a matter of switching to DREs so much as switching, period. [emphasis added, footnote omitted]

This conclusion suggests that the concept of "deltaphobia" that I blogged about in February is not only a factor in the election system's smooth adoption of change but in voters' confidence about the system itself.

Sances and Stewart's paper is an important - and eye-opening - look at voter confidence across time. Their conclusion - that change itself (of any kind) is a significant reason for voters to lose confidence in the election system - is more than a little ironic given how often voter confidence is cited by policymakers as a reason for making changes to elections.

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