Thoughts on voter confidence and election reform

The New Hampshire meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (PACEI) focused on four substantive topics — turnout, voter confidence, fraud, and voting machine security.  Here are my thoughts on the voter confidence topic.

I start with voter confidence because this is how the entire work of the commission has been framed.  The executive order that created the commission contained the following three points that are to be reported back to the president:

  • those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections;
  • those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that undermine the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting processes used in Federal elections; and
  • those vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting.

Voter confidence is something I’ve researched and published about.  I’ve explored the evolution of voter confidence from the 2000 presidential election to the present with my former student, Michael Sances.  I’ve written about the relationship (or lack thereof) between strict voter ID laws and voter confidence with my colleagues Stephen Ansolabehere and Nate Persily. Finally, for many years, I have asked questions on the Cooperative Congressional Election Study and the Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE) about attitudes toward fraud and confidence.

Based on my own research, and the research of others in the field, (such as Lonna Atkeson, Mike Alvarez, Thad Hall, and Paul Gronke) here are what I think are the top-line findings about voter confidence and its correlates.

  • Voters don’t process information about election administration the same way that elites do.

Voter confidence ebbs and flows based on big, hard-to-miss things in the political environment, not on the fine points of election administration.

  • Survey responses to questions about voter confidence depend on what level of government, or level of generality, you ask about.

Voters are very pleased with their own experiences, and are confident that their own votes have been counted as cast.  They are less sanguine about vote-counting that happens elsewhere.  For instance, in the 2016 SPAE, 65% of respondents stated that they were very confident their own vote was counted as cast.  This compares to 54% who were similarly confident of the count in their own county, 44% in their state, and 28% nationwide.

  • Voters are the most confident when their candidate wins.

This is illustrated in the accompanying graph, which shows the percentage of respondents who reported being very confident their own votes were counted as cast.  (The data points connected by solid lines are from the SPAE; the points connected by dashed lines are averages from national polls before the SPAE was created.) The purple line is the national average; the red and blue lines.  This pattern has led me to quite many times, “if you want to increase voter confidence, make sure everyone’s favorite candidates win.”  Voters may have in fact heeded this advice, to the degree there appears to be residential sorting based on political beliefs.

  • When it comes to the experience at the polling place, voters are the most confident when their wait to vote is short and when they encounter competent poll workers.
  • When it comes to judging confidence in election administration at the state level, voters in battleground states are much less confident than voters in non-battleground states. (On this point, see my graphic of the week from June 6.)  While I don’t know of research about the mechanism at work here, it seems likely that it has something to do with the relentless litigation that surrounds campaigns in battleground states, and the trash-talking of the campaigns in these intensely competitive situations.
  • Strict voter ID laws don’t make voters more confident in elections. If anything, the politics in states surrounding the enactment of laws polarizes opinion around partisanship, with the net effect of reducing confidence.  While it may be true that there is a correlation between levels of confidence and the likelihood someone will vote, there is no evidence that low confidence can be overcome by election reforms such as voter ID (or vote-by-mail, or other reforms that have fervent adherents.)  Claims to the contrary are all speculation.
  • The use of electronic voting machines doesn’t depress voter confidence. The mass public is pretty immune to the critique of DREs for lacking paper backups.  In the 2016 CCES, voters in counties that used electronic voting machines gave higher ratings to DREs than they gave to paper ballots; the opposite is true for voters in counties with scanned paper ballots.  Voters are very conservative when it comes to voting machines.  There are good reasons to retire paperless DREs, but increasing voter confidence in the communities that use them is not one of them.


It is common for policy advocates and scholars who are policy specialists to make claims along the lines that adopting their favorite policy will increase the confidence of voters in elections.  Such talk is not only divorces from the empirical record, it also is divorced from sturdy theoretical models that ground our understanding of voter confidence and its big brother, political legitimacy.  Even before voters think about the rules of election administration, they have political attitudes about the proper relationship between citizens and the state, and they also have attitudes about whether government, in general, should be trusted.  The causal effect of any particular public policy — whether electoral or not — on public confidence will have an effect on existing levels of confidence that are rarely even measurable.


How does this discussion relate to today’s session?  Unfortunately, I was on the road for much of it, and therefore can’t comment based on watching much of the testimony.  I did watch John Lott’s testimony and part of the Q&A that followed.  I also read the prepared remarks of the others (here is a link to the pre-meeting materials).


My main impression is that there is a rhetorical drum beat that presumes voters as a whole are discouraged from voting because of the lack of voter ID laws. There are many serious arguments in favor of and in opposition to strict(er) voter ID laws, but using these laws to increase voter confidence (or turnout) is not one of them.


An important question that remains is whether this rhetorical drum beat itself will affect voter confidence.  Some of my friends have worried that the media attention given to over-hyped charges of voter fraud will depress voter confidence, and thus discourage voters.  (However, keep in mind my skepticism about the causal link between voter confidence and turnout expressed above.)


In my mind, another outcome is more likely, at least as far as public opinion is concerned.  Rather than depress voter confidence, the nature of the rhetoric surrounding issues like fraud, voter ID, and national registries of voters will press it into a partisan frame.  With prominent Republicans and others on the right repeating how fraud-ridden the election administration system is and Democrats fighting back, it’s likely that the confidence of Republicans in the mass public will fall while the confidence of Democrats will rise.  Thus, for now, I’m placing my bets with the view that the work of the PACEI will mostly serve to polarize the electorate, rather than boost its confidence.