BY CHRISTOPHER COOPER
and GIBBS KNOTTS
For years, most Americans didn’t pay much attention to election administration. We assumed our elections were administered fairly and didn’t think much about election rules and whether these administrative details affected political contests.
For many, this blind faith in election administration changed after the 2000 presidential election when we learned the phrase “hanging chad” and, for perhaps the first time in American history, a state-level secretary of state (remember Katherine Harris?) became a household name.
Since the controversy in 2000, political scientists have increasingly studied the political effects of election administration. Although election rules don’t always garner headlines, they have the potential to be more important to the outcome on Nov. 6 than stories about Mitt Romney’s tax rate or the location of Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
If you’ve voted in different precincts, one thing you may have noticed is that precincts vary dramatically in size, quality, location and staffing. These variations occur because political contests in the United States are amazingly decentralized — meaning that individual localities are given considerable control over how to run their elections.
Most election jurisdictions in the United States are small, serving only about 350 voters, whereas others are quite large and may allow tens of thousands to cast ballots.
This disparity is evident here in Charleston County. For example, the Mount Pleasant 29 precinct had just 290 registered voters in 2008 but Mount Pleasant 35, located just down the road, had 2,787 — nearly 10 times higher.
These disparities have important implications for the outcome of elections. According to political scientists David Kimball and Brady Baybeck, voter turnout is higher, and there are fewer challenges of poll workers in smaller precincts.
Perhaps because of their larger budgets and complexity, however, larger jurisdictions tend to support innovative voting methods (such as early voting, voting by mail, and Internet voting) more than their smaller counterparts.
Something as simple as precinct location also has important effects on electoral outcomes. One of us (Knotts, along with Emory University’s Moshe Haspel) published an article a few years ago that showed that the farther a person has to travel to a polling place, the less likely that person is to vote. Other recent studies have even demonstrated that people tend to vote differently on certain types of issues based on whether they vote in a church, a school or some other locale. For instance, this research demonstrated that voters were more likely to support an education initiative when they cast ballots in schools.
Of course, election administration isn’t all about voting systems and polling places.
The people who work the polls also can play a large role in how we perceive the voting process. Interestingly, these people don’t look a lot like typical Americans. According to a team of political scientists led by Brigham Young University’s David Magelby, poll workers are much older than the average American, are more likely to be women and are more likely to have at least a high school education.
These demographic differences have important implications for how people perceive the electoral process, as voters tend to trust poll workers more who resemble them demographically. Even more importantly, people are more likely to trust that their vote is counted when they trust the people administering the elections.
As we move toward Nov. 6, the headlines likely will focus on the day-to-day ups and downs of the campaigns — what political commentators call “horse race” stories. But as you go to vote on Election Day, remember that administrative details such as precinct size, precinct placement and the characteristics of the poll worker also can affect who sits in office next year.
If you don’t believe us, just ask Al Gore.
Christopher Cooper is associate professor and head of the department of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. Gibbs Knotts is professor and chair of the department of political science at the College of Charleston.