Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The relationship between partisanship and confidence in election system integrity

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There are many factors that should come into consideration when voters evaluate their level of confidence in how elections are run. The voter should think about the voting technology being used, for instance, and whether the voting machines have been subject to appropriate pre- and post-election audits for reliability and security. The voter should also think about the infrastructure in place for ensuring that ballots are recorded accurately and tabulated without fault. However, should the results of the election have any bearing on whether the election itself was run fairly?

This notion was brought up by the Pew Center on the States in a February 2012 report titled Election Administration by the Numbers: An Analysis of Available Datasets and How to Use Them. In it, they found that political partisanship appears to have a link to voters' confidence that the ballots are being counted correctly and as intended.

More specifically, the report found data showing “that many voters have more confidence in the election system's integrity when their candidate has won.” This could have to do with the psychological effect that winning and losing may have. If their preferred candidate wins, the voter is then pleased with the election result and thus may also have positive feelings toward the election infrastructure. Conversely, if the preferred candidate loses, the voter is then displeased with the election results and may be – consciously or unconsciously – seeking reasons why the results didn't go the way they had hoped. One of these reasons, in their mind, is a possible lack of integrity in the election system.

Of course, the legitimacy of a government is inherently tied to the confidence that voters have in election results. If the electorate feels that an election is rigged or otherwise compromised, they may feel that the elected government is there unjustly. As the administrative bodies in charge of running an election should be unbiased and objective, they should have no direct connection whatsoever with the party that ends up winning the election. Even so, voter perception can be very powerful.

The Pew Center report looks specifically at the American general elections of 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010. When George W. Bush, a Republican, won the presidency in 2004, 81.5 percent of Republicans were “very confident” that their vote was counted accurately, but this number fell to 74.2 percent in the 2008 election that saw Democrat Barack Obama win the presidency. Conversely, only 56.9 percent of Democrats were “very confident” that their vote was counted correctly in 2004, rising to 74.8 percent in the 2008 election.

Interestingly, the level of confidence in regards to the nationwide ballots as a whole was recorded as being lower by voters of both parties when compared to the confidence that the voters had in the accurate tabulation of their own votes. As an aggregate, the confidence of voters in the United States that the election as a whole was conducted fairly has hovered at around 50 percent. That's very low, especially when compared to the 89 percent of those polled in Denmark. However, the same partisan effect demonstrated on an individual voter basis also persisted on national perception.

A mere 20.7 percent of Democrats were “very confident” that votes across the country were tabulated accurately in the 2004 election, compared to 75.0 percent of Republicans. When Barack Obama won in 2008, the trend reversed: 53.9 percent of Democrats were very confident, whereas only around 30% of Republicans were very confident in the accurate counting of votes in the 2008 presidential election.

Even though partisanship should not play a role in determining how confident a voter is that ballots are being counted accurately, it is clear that political allegiances do have an impact. Perhaps a greater move toward using even more impartial third parties to administer elections is the solution to this problem, helping to elevate voter confidence with better audits and greater transparency in the electoral system.