NAS Discussion on Intermediaries

Since I am sitting across from Mike at the NAS conference, I too want to blog on the panel I was on, which discussed the role of intermediaries in elections. I am going to focus on the overview comments made by Michael Traugott (Professor, U. Michigan), Ted Selker (Professor, MIT) and then the presentation that I did.

Traugott noted that there are two issues in elections. First, how do candidates get access to the media, given its importance for informing voters? This is a major issue that has been discussed by campaign finance people, who often discuss issues of public financing of elections.

Second, how does the public learn about elections, especially problems in the implementation of an election? Traugott noted that the problems that occur with or in the electoral system are likely to be mediated by a third-party—especially the media—instead of being experienced directly. Consider this: an individual voter has a low probability that she will be affected personally by a problem in polling place. Instead, a voter is likely to experience problems through media reports about election issues and problems. Acknowledging that these problems are learned through a mediated setting increases the importance of the media and their describing the problem correctly. Also, there is good reason to believe that this mediated effort is related to trust in the system.

Traugott notes that there are causal relationships between news and trust, affecting by how the media frame the news. One issue is that reporters have very limited, general skills in dealing with issues of science. In the area of elections, we might ask, for example, what is an error in the election process? How do you explain the occurrence of a problem to the lay public? How do you do this without bias? Traugott argues that elections should be presented as a system, and reporters should be educated about voting, voting processes, and voting technologies. The risks of errors in reporting increase as elections become more complicated with the introduction of electronic voting. Finally, Traugott notes that the blogoshere creates new problems and risks as well. In blogs, information spreads rapidly, raising special issues like the need for fact checkers and truth squads during key times in the electoral process.

Ted Selker discussed the role of intermediaries in elections. For example, poll workers are key intermediaries, as noted in the first picture in his slides, where the poll worker is opening and interacting with the voter-verified paper trail. He also noted that different people spend different amount of time with different forms of media intermediaries: for instance, Asian American men spend 50 percent more time on the Internet compared to all men in the same age category, but spend much less time with radio compared to all men in the category. Ted notes that the intermediaries of the future are likely to be much different than those of today and may change the way people vote. In fact, it is easy to imagine a person today surfing the Internet on a wireless handheld devise to figure out which candidate to vote for in the dog catcher race; you just surf to your local newspaper and find the endorsements.

I focused my discussion on the role of election officials and poll workers as intermediaries (my slides are here). For those of you who read our blog regularly, my talk first focused on the role of information from the election official to the voter, using Larimer County as an example (see here for my blog on this topic). I then talked about how poll workers are critical to the voting process and directly affects the voter’s experience in the election and their trust in government (see this blog for my discussion of the study I have done on this issue). Interestingly, two election officials made comments directly supporting this point. One election official noted that most voter education goes on between the time the voter enters the polling place and the time the voter leaves. A second election official noted that poll workers are “street level lawyers” who interpret the entire election code on the fly for voters.

Clearly, there are a number of assumptions about the role of poll workers in elections and the role of voter education that need to be further tested and studied.