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Mock election experiment suggests absentee voters lack confidence that their votes are counted

A recent study provides empirical evidence that the way a person casts their ballot in an election affects how confident they are that their vote will be counted. The findings were published in American Politics Research.

As study author Lisa A. Bryant discusses, public trust in electoral outcomes is crucial to the democratic process. With the use of vote-by-mail ballots increasing, it is important to consider how absentee voters perceive the voting process.

Previous research has demonstrated that absentee voters are among the least confident that their votes will be received, but it is not clear why.

“One possible explanation has to do with differences in the voting experience,” Bryant speculates. “Absentee voters do not have direct interaction with the electoral process the way that Election Day or early-in-person voters do. They do not interact with poll workers, voting equipment, or other voters at the polls and do not see their ballots opened or votes tabulated (see also Burden and Gaines, 2015).”

To systematically test how voting method impacts voter confidence, Bryant devised a mock election experiment.

A total of 348 participants who were mostly university students were asked to vote in a fictitious election. To mirror the typical election process, subjects were given professionally printed ballots with the names of fictitious candidates on them. The subjects were also given an information sheet about the candidates to help them make their selection. Next, the participants were split into two conditions.

Each in-person voter (229 participants) fed their ballot into a tabulator where they could see their ballot being accepted and counted. Each absentee voter (119 participants) placed their ballot into “a sealed, signed privacy envelope” and deposited it into a “locked ballot dropbox around the corner from the voting location.”

After casting their vote, each participant completed a survey that included a question measuring their confidence that their vote was counted correctly and a second question assessing their confidence that everyone’s votes were counted correctly.

An analysis of the data showed that those who voted with the absentee method reported statistically lower levels of confidence that their votes were counted. Specifically, in-person voters had an average confidence level of 4.2 on a five-point scale, and absentee voters had an average confidence score of 3.8. A series of demographic variables were also analyzed, including sex, political affiliation, and being a first-time voter. None of these other variables were associated with confidence in one’s vote being counted.

Moreover, those who voted absentee also had significantly lower levels of confidence in everyone’s votes being counted. Again, none of the demographic variables affected voter’s confidence that others’ votes were counted correctly.

As Bryant reflects, “This suggests that seeing a ballot counted or accepted by the ballot tabulator plays a role in voter confidence and helps explain persistent differences between absentee, or VBM voters, and those who vote in person. Even in controlled settings, where participants know that their ballot has been received, they still express lower confidence that their vote will be counted correctly.”

While election officials continue to strive to improve voter confidence, these findings suggest that, when it comes to absentee voting, this is no simple task. Bryant observes, “providing voters a greater variety of ways to cast their ballot via no-excuse absentee ballots or all mail elections may result in unintended consequences and actually produce lower rates of confidence.”

The researcher continues, “barring improvements in remote voter assistance or better ballot-tracking systems that can confirm a ballot was counted, we should continue to expect lower levels of confidence among absentee voters.”

The study, “Seeing Is Believing: An Experiment on Absentee Ballots and Voter Confidence”, was authored by Lisa A. Bryant.



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