What makes Americans trust the electoral process? How can Democracy Fund work to build trust? We spend a lot of time thinking about these issues, since trust in elections and institutions more broadly are essential to healthy democracy. In order to inform our work on trust and election administration, we partnered with Reed College and the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.*
Our survey of 1,000 Americans turned up two important results in the ‘trust’ framework. First, confidence in vote-counting depends in part on who wins or loses. At the same time, competent poll workers may help bolster voters’ trust in elections.
One way to measure trust in elections is to ask respondents about “voter confidence” – a measure of whether people feel confident that their own ballots were (or will be) counted as intended. (You can read about other measures here.) In order to help us find correlates of change, we asked about voter confidence both pre- and post-election.
Winner’s and loser’s effects
The table below reveals clear evidence of what political scientists call the winner’s effect. As far as we know, this is a psychological boost from seeing a preferred candidate win. Going into the election, only 65.9 percent of Trump supporters were “very” or “somewhat confident” that their votes would be counted as intended. Post-election, that changed to 93.2 percent — an increase of 27 points.
Other studies point to a loser’s effect. We did not find much of one in 2016. 86.3 percent of Clinton voters reported being “very” or “somewhat confident” after the election, a decline of only four points.
The importance of competent poll workers
We also found that people who rated their poll workers highly tended to express higher confidence. For example, 62 percent of respondents rated their poll workers as “excellent,” and 63.4 percent of those people were “very confident” in the counting of their votes.
Going a step further, we used logistic regression to test the relationship between the polling-place experience and change in one’s voter confidence. This analysis also accounted for age, race, gender, education, income, and vote choice.
On average, respondents who said their poll workers did an “excellent job” were less likely to report lower confidence post-election than those who said “poor job” – 4.5 times less likely among Trump voters and 2.5 times less likely for Clinton voters.
What made people rate poll workers highly? One factor stood out in our data: a perception that poll workers “knew the proper procedures.” 60.7 percent of respondents who reported that perception also said they were “very confident” that their votes had been counted as intended. This relationship held in a logistic regression controlling for age, race, gender, education, income, vote choice, and a raft of other potential reasons for rating poll workers highly (e.g., politeness, tending to voters waiting in line, et cetera).
Given the prevalence in 2016 of rhetoric about “hacking” and “rigging” —as well as other, more specific worries across partisan and racial groups—we were pleased to find that competent poll workers likely boost trust.
Based on analysis captured in our Elections & Public Trust systems map, Democracy Fund supports several organizations working on ways to raise the quality of election administration and improve the voter experience at polling places. The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, for example, offers a set of tools that election officials can use to reduce voter wait times and efficiently allocate polling-place resources. Other good examples come from the Center for Civic Design, which provides election officials with field guides that, among other things, include instructions on providing clear materials for poll worker training and making in-person voting a pleasant experience.
We hope these data and the good work being done by these and other grantees spark a larger conversation about the importance of recruiting and training poll workers. Americans rely on poll workers to understand and help voters navigate election processes. To further promote trust in elections, election officials and advocates can and should continue to support poll workers’ success.
This is the second in a series of blog posts that showcase our findings from the CCES, and we look forward to sharing more in the coming months. This post was first published in November 2017, and was updated in February 2018.
* YouGov administers the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), which includes Common Content and invites participation from up to 50 academic teams. The Reed/Democracy Fund pre-election survey was administered to 1,000 respondents, and our post-election data includes answers from 845 respondents. More information about the CCES and its methodology is available at the Harvard Dataverse, found at: https://cces.gov.harvard.edu/data.
Paul Gronke is the Principal Investigator of the Reed College/Democracy Fund team module. Natalie Adona is the Research Associate for the Democracy Fund’s Elections Program and manages the roll-out of these findings, with support from Jack Santucci, the Elections Research Fellow. Please direct any questions about these survey findings to firstname.lastname@example.org.