– Executive Summary –

The United States of America has enjoyed a largely peaceful history of transitions of power since the first presidential election in 1789.[1] This 230-year history is owed, in part, to the electorate’s acceptance of the election outcomes that have transpired. Voter confidence—the measure of the collective trust of the voters in both the system of elections and the outcomes it produces—has been more heavily studied since the legal challenges that overshadowed the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, when a sample of Americans were asked whether they had confidence in the honesty of elections in the United States, fewer than a third replied yes.[2] In the years that followed, leading up to the 2020 election, that number slipped even further, matching the all-time low on record since 2000.[3]

The path to addressing voter confidence requires an understanding of the components that either contribute to or erode its existence. To that end, a review of the literature in this space was conducted to identify these contributing factors, both external and internal. External factors include the social media landscape, as well as both international and domestic influences that are constantly evolving. Internal factors focus more on policies and procedures, as well as people who either implement or train others to execute these procedures. Among these individuals, poll workers represent the single greatest factor, as they significantly outnumber professional or full-time election staff in most jurisdictions where in-person election-day voting takes place at polling locations.[4] Of interest to this thesis is whether improvements in the training of these poll workers, including training to use technology on election day, could improve poll-worker competency and aid in combatting the erosion of voter confidence.

Among the research on poll workers, scholars have debated which factors matter most—the procedures used, the personnel applying those procedures, or the voter experience that results from them.[5] Perhaps the most compelling argument is one that likens the role of a poll worker to that of a customer service agent in a consumer setting.[6] By connecting voter confidence to poll-worker competency, Claassen et al. establish a foundation from which this project builds.[7] This thesis agrees that a chain of variables—from the correct understanding of procedures to well-trained personnel—contributes to positive voter experience and that focusing on that chain as a whole is more effective than fixating on a single link in the chain. Simply having the right people without proper training or the right procedures without poll-worker understanding will not get the job done. This thesis extends on that basis by examining where that process can be improved, specifically around poll-worker training.

The literature on technology implementation in elections, another internal driver, provides additional insight through the lenses of both successful and failed implementations. Within this space, this thesis leverages two such cases from Iowa in 2016 and 2020 to provide a comparative analysis of the constraints of time, funding, expertise, and contingency planning.[8] From this analysis, a set of recommended practices is provided for technology implementation, specifically relating to poll-worker training on the use of technology or in preparation to educate the public on its use.

To supplement the gaps found in the literature surrounding potential improvements to poll-worker preparation, this author conducted original research through interviews with county-level poll-worker trainers. These trainers answered questions about the challenges and limitations they faced, resistance they had to overcome, and successes they achieved, as well as how those successes could be replicated by others in the space. In addition, a focus group was convened, comprising first-time poll workers from the November 2020 presidential election. The emphasis on “first-time” was meant to zero in on the initial training experience, as a typical first-time worker is undifferentiated in the polling location from a veteran poll worker. These focus group participants were asked to share their successes, failures, misunderstandings, concerns, and overall experience from a training perspective and on the day of election. The feedback provided during the interviews and focus group led to the following generalized findings and conclusions.

  1. A voter’s experience at the polls has a direct corollary relationship to a voter’s confidence in the integrity of the election system; therefore, it is in the best interest of the elections community to ensure that those poll experiences be as positive as possible.
  2. Poll workers are largely temporary, part-time staff who directly affect a voter’s overall experience, either positively or negatively, after an average of less than four hours of training time; therefore, the manner and method used in training poll workers are crucial in increasing their preparedness.
  3. Voters who have a greater understanding of the processes of an election have less reason to interact at length with poll workers; therefore, voter education is a critical component in combatting the erosion of voter confidence.
  4. Material for a voter-education campaign would closely resemble a campaign to increase poll-worker understanding and preparedness. As such, it would be possible to create common media or educational material.
  5. Technology is becoming more prominent in polling locations; therefore, poll workers must have opportunities to work with the technology well before election day.
  6. To voters, first-time poll workers are indistinguishable from their more-experienced colleagues in an election environment. This lack of visual differentiation places less-experienced poll workers at risk of failing to meet voter expectations.
  7. Because poll workers sense a high degree of civic duty and desire to do the job well, they are more likely to take advantage of additional non-mandatory training, especially on technology that will be utilized in a jurisdiction.

These conclusions led to the following recommendations:

  1. Engage in additional research in use of online learning modules and certification exams for poll workers.
  2. Standardize broadly applicable procedures of election administration.
  3. Recruit a new generation of poll workers with technology familiarity.
  4. Create a voter-education plan that can be utilized for poll-worker training.
  5. Appropriate funding for the purpose of poll-worker training.
  6. Utilize recommended practices for implementing technology in polling locations, including the time to develop, time to troubleshoot, and time to train.
  7. Familiarize the public with the technology before its use on election day.
  8. Test poll workers for both comprehension and retention of knowledge.
  9. Design additional resources for up-skilling and acknowledging poll workers.
  10. Employ gamification in the poll-worker training process using merit badge IDs and explain the training provided and badge meanings/topics to the public.

[1] D. Jason Berggren, “Presidential Election of 1789,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, accessed January 9, 2021, http://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/‌presidential-election-of-1789/.

[2] Justin McCarthy and John Clifton, “Update: Americans’ Confidence in Voting, Election,” Gallup, November 1, 2016, https://news.gallup.com/poll/196976/update-americans-confidence-voting-election.‌aspx.

[3] Justin McCarthy, “Confidence in Accuracy of U.S. Election Matches Record Low,” Gallup, October 8, 2020, https://news.gallup.com/poll/321665/confidence-accuracy-election-matches-record-low.aspx.

[4] Poll workers are temporary, part-time employees, trained before their service in a group setting and only for a limited number of hours. In-person, election-day voting is the focus of this thesis, as it is a common procedure in states that do not use ballot-by-mail or absentee-type procedures. The author believes that this focus provides the greatest opportunity for improving voter confidence because of the accessibility of the internal variables involved, most of which are controlled or at least managed by the election administrator.

[5] Toby S. James, Comparative Electoral Management: Performance, Networks and Instruments (London: Routledge, 2020), https://www.routledge.com/Comparative-Electoral-Management-Performance-Networks-and-Instruments/James/p/book/9781138682412; Lonna Rae Atkeson and Kyle L. Saunders, “The Effect of Election Administration on Voter Confidence: A Local Matter?,” PS: Political Science & Politics 40, no. 4 (October 2007): 655–60, https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096507071041; Bridgett A. King and Alicia Barnes, “Descriptive Representation in Election Administration: Poll Workers and Voter Confidence,” Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy 18, no. 1 (March 2019): 16–30, https://doi.‌org/10.1089/elj.2018.0485.

[6] Ryan L. Claassen et al., “‘At Your Service’: Voter Evaluations of Poll Worker Performance,” American Politics Research 36, no. 4 (July 2008): 612–34, https://doi.org/10.1177/1532673X08319006.

[7] Claassen et al.

[8] Kim Smiley, “Case Study: Iowa Caucus Results Delay,” ThinkReliability (blog), March 2, 2020, https://blog.thinkreliability.com/case-study-iowa-caucus-results-delay; Sara Morrison, “Iowa’s 2016 Caucus App Worked and Everyone Forgot about It,” Vox, February 7, 2020, https://www.vox.com/recode/‌2020/2/7/21125078/iowa-caucus-2016-mobile-app-2020.

1 thought on “Combatting Erosion of Voter Confidence with Innovation of Election Administration”

  1. Hi there. As the midterm elections are getting closer, some of my neighbors have already planned to volunteer themselves during the voting day. In my opinion, competent officers at a polling station could also positively influence the level of confidence among voters as well. I’m gonna have to remind them about this factor so they could carry out their respective task decently.

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