The Poll Worker Factor

I recently gave at talk to my colleagues at the University of Utah about the impact that poll workers have on public confidence in elections. The powerpoint slides from the presentation are here.

This summer I did a study with two colleagues from BYU–Quin Monson and Kelly Patterson–where we implemented an internet survey of voters who had cast ballots in the 2004 general election at a polling place in Utah. Quin and Kelly run an exit poll project and in 2004, a random sample of individuals did not complete an exit poll; instead, they provided their email address and basic demographics. Utah has the nation’s highest internet penetration, making it an excellent population to survey online.

In the survey, we asked four types of questions: (1) their political preferences about candidates and issues, (2) their experiences at their polling place in 2004, (3) how confident they were that various aspects of the electoral process were fair, and (4) demographic information.

What we found was that poll workers have a very significant impact on how confident people are that their ballot was counted accurately, that the election was run fairly, and that democracy works in the state. It was the second most important factor in the analysis, after partisanship. (Not surprisingly, Republicans were more confident than Democrats in a state run by Republicans!)

If you study polling places regularly, as Mike and I both do, you often see instances where poll workers implement the rules in their own way. In fact, researchers at Loyola-Marymount in Los Angeles found this to be the case in a report published in 2004. For example, poll workers were asking voters for ID in a small but sizable number of polling places, even when doing so was counter to California law. Not surprisingly, problems occurred more often in low income and minority communities.

Poll workers can be seen, therefore, as having the ability to add to the cost of voting for some voters. If a voter has a bad experience at the polls, it may not make voting so costly that they do not vote again, but it could. It could also drive them to vote in another way–such as by absentee ballot–or it may merely make them less confident in the way government works.

One problem with studying elections today is that we know so little about poll workers. However, this study does help us see that the need to study poll workers is great, because the voter-poll worker interaction clearly affects the way people view important aspects of the electoral process.