Encouraging researcher access to American polling places

I spent yesterday at the annual workshop on election integrity, hosted by Pippa Norris’s Electoral Integrity Project. It was an interesting day.  This year, the theme was about the 2016 U.S. election in comparative perspective. Leaving aside the obvious cracks about people who study only the United States being achingly narrow, we who study how Americans conduct elections can learn a lot from those who study how elections are conducted in other countries.

One of the most useful presentations at the workshop was by Nandi Vanka of the Carter Center, who discussed a report on the observability of elections in the 50 states.  You can download that report here.  The report provides useful context to the helpful NCSL web page on policies for election observers.  (The Carter Center team that wrote the report also provided the underlying research for the NCSL page.)

I took away two major thoughts after hearing the presentation and reading the report.  The first is that the United States lags far behind in upholding its international obligations to make its elections available to international observers.  My own experience is that state and local officials have nothing to fear from teams of professional, well-trained international observers taking a look at all aspects of the election process.  The elections profession in the U.S. can learn when election professionals from other countries comment on our procedures.  It’s just the right thing to do.

The second important point is that we (by which I mean, academics) need to do a better job working with election administrators to pave the way for academic researchers to have access to polling places.  Lonna Atkeson’s work in New Mexico demonstrates that both original academic research and improved electoral practices can emerge when the right conditions are set for researchers to be in polling places.  New Mexico is the rare — and perhaps only — state that lists academic researchers as one category of individuals allowed in polling places to watch the process.

We can’t wave any magic wands to transfer the New Mexico experience to the rest of the 50 states, but the following steps could probably help facilitate greater access to polling places by academics.

First, academics interested in doing fieldwork in polling places should develop personal connections to a few local election administrators, who can serve as mentors and (later) as recommenders.

Second, having established a personal connection, arrange to just sit in a few polling places on Election Day to watch and take notes — but not to write up anything for public consumption.  Best to know the lay of the land before jumping into publishable research.  Also, once you have observed a polling place on your own, you will have a better idea about how to deploy researchers into polling places without them getting in the way of the voting.

Third, in arranging access to polling places to do research, academics should have both a clear sense of what the research will accomplish, including an idea about how the research can benefit the administrator.  If nothing else, offer to share findings with administrators as a part of the write-up.  (This is not much different from our typical offer to share reports of our research with people who fill out our questionnaires.)

We may also want to think about ways to accredit academic researchers.  Election officials should be assured that when academic researchers go into polling places, they know how to act professionally, work unobtrusively, and follow the laws that constrain what goes on in a polling place.