Monday, October 14, 2013

A psychological approach to election administration

Source: google images
Human psychology plays a role in all aspects of everyday existence. Industrial psychology may look at the layout of controls in an airplane's cockpit, for example, placing certain displays, buttons and levels in specific locations to best accommodate the natural tendencies of pilots. In sales and marketing, advertising executives look closely at the psychology ramifications of their marketing efforts, capitalizing on how to best influence their prospective customers. And psychology also plays a critical role in elections. 

Indeed, there is not only a whole branch of psychology dedicated to this study – appropriately called electoral psychology – but there are also organizations that work closely to best understand what elections mean to voters and how to devise elections such that they are the most efficient and the most fair. One such organization is the International Centre for Electoral Psychology (ICEP), which has put forth several reports and presentations on the subject of a psychological approach to election administration.

The goal of the ICEP is to “help decision-makers to better understand the psychology of voters in a bid to make elections as effective, trusted and democratically fulfilling for citizens as possible.” To this end, the ICEP studies several factors related to the psychology of the voter as he or she heads into the voter booth to cast his or her ballot.

For example, the ICEP recognizes that casting a vote can be a very emotional experience and one that is not taken lightly. Up to 30% of voters do not decide on their vote until the final week before the election with 29% of Americans and 40% of French voters changing their minds on Election Day itself. When administrating an election, it is important to recognize that a voter's choice can be heavily influenced right up to the final moment before casting a ballot. 60% of voters feel excited in the polling booth and 74% feel a sense of pride.

Memories and early experiences also play a very critical role. It is important for election officials to approach youth about elections and democracy, ensuring that they do cast a ballot when they become of age. Early experiences significantly increase the likelihood of participation in future elections. Young people who do not vote in the first two eligible elections are likely to become citizens who habitually do not vote moving forward. That is why early experiences, like accompanying parents to the polling stations and participating in elections when they become of age, are so important. Indeed, 48% of those who accompanied parents to a polling place have voted themselves, compared to 30% of those with no memory of going to a polling station with parents.

Voting is habit-forming and habitual voters are likely to continue voting, even when they shift allegiances or partisanship. Social pressure also plays a role.

These memories and early experiences color all future perceptions of future elections too. If a young voter experiences fraud, organizational problems or other issues related to the legitimacy and professionalism of an election, that citizen will likely recall that problem in the future in a very vivid way. This citizen could become disenchanted and become distrustful of the electoral process.

Deciding on the actual vote itself can also involve many different factors. Some voters have sociotropic thoughts, considering social responsibility and the impact of the vote on the rest of the country. Others may have more egocentric thoughts, focusing more on family and the impact of the vote on their personal situations. Past elections, current emotions, and previous voting behavior can also impact the vote.

There are many responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of election administrators. They must ensure that the logistics of the election are properly carried out, they must hire staff that will be impartial in front of the voting public, and they also have to consider the psychology of the election to make sure the results are fair, unbiased, and democratically fulfilling. The integrity of the election must be upheld and all psychological factors must be addressed to allow for a nonpartisan election.