biased or not? Local election officials do not tilt the election in favor of their party’s candidates.

In the wake of January 6, 2021, revolts and the spread of rumors that the election had been stolen, Americans’ confidence in the integrity of the country’s electoral system is at an all-time low. A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 41% of Americans are not so confident, or not at all, in the integrity of the American electoral system.

The once ambiguous subject of election administration has made its way into news headlines across the country. Local election officials – who are accused of running the country’s electoral contests – have faced harassment and even death threats.

Have these officials, now in charge, used their authority to interfere with America’s democratic process? Do local election officials abuse their power?

Short answer, according to research conducted with my UCLA colleagues, political scientists Igor Gayan and Daniel Thompson, they haven’t so far. Both Democratic and Republican election officials oversee elections with similar partisan results, turnout rates, and administrative policies.

A red, white and beau sign that says 'IMPORTANT PROCEDURES' at the top and says 'BALLBOTS NEVER ARE DROPED!'  Reduce.
Polling officers have many duties, from registering voters to hiring and training polling personnel to tabulating votes and authenticating election results. Here, a sign from the Washoe County, Nev., registrar of voters to the ballot counters.
Ty O’Neill / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

no undue influence

In most of the US, elections are administered by partisan elected officials rather than nonpartisan bureaucrats.

These officers are elected by voters at the county or municipal level. Their responsibilities are wide-ranging and include registering voters, maintaining registration lists, hiring and training polling personnel, selecting polling locations, printing ballots, obtaining election equipment, conducting early and absentee voting, providing voters with Including educating, monitoring election day, tabulating votes, handling. Authentication of provisional ballot papers and election results.

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The potential for these officials to influence the election in favor of their party seems obvious.

Legislators have fought hotly over voting laws, with the understanding but rarely stated that making voting easier or harder would benefit their party in the ballot box.

The same argument – that making voting more or less difficult can affect election results – holds true for those who enforce these laws. Local election officials have discretion over decisions such as the number of polling places to establish, early voting hours, registration list purges, and whether to accept absentee and provisional ballots.

The past behavior of election officials provides clues about how Democratic and Republican clerks will act in the future. We studied more than 3,000 partisan local election officials in 1,313 counties in 21 states from 1998 to 2018. We then examined the presidential elections who were responsible for the administration.

We found that Democrats and Republicans serving in the same counties oversee elections with similar results. When a Democratic election official is responsible for administering elections, the Democratic presidential candidate typically does no better than a Republican official administering that election. We studied every year from 2004 to 2020, that’s true.

Democratic and Republican officials serving in equivalent counties also oversee elections with a similar level of voter turnout. They make similar administrative decisions in many parts of the job, including the number of polling places opened, the share of votes they determine should be provisionally cast, the share of provisional ballots, the percentage of eligible voters registered, the registration removal rate, the number of registrants. partisan balance and voter wait times.

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A woman examines a large piece of paper with a print on it.
An election worker checks a ballot at the Clackamas County Election Office on May 19, 2022 in Oregon City, Ore.
AP Photo/Gillian Flakes

biased partisan

Why didn’t the local election officials report the election in favor of their fellow party members on the ballot?

One explanation is that since these officials want to win re-election, they obstruct their actions to avoid appearing too partisan. However, even when clerks are of limited term and thus have no need to win re-election, they still do not benefit their party.

Another explanation is that clerks from the same party have trouble working together to change election results. Promoting your party openly is difficult and rarely makes a difference in results, so election officials decide not to juggle results personally.

But even that doesn’t explain the results. We found that clerks do not benefit their party even when it is easier to do so – such as in isolated or highly diverse counties, where clerks may use race to estimate a voter’s party affiliation, or When election results are most likely to change. , such as in populated counties and competing states, where more votes can be affected and fewer votes are needed to change election results.

Instead, we believe that a combination of the two factors has led partisan election officials to act in a non-partisan manner. First, some research suggests that choosing different election policies, such as allowing or prohibiting absentee voting without excuse, affects results only marginally. Second, Democratic and Republican clerks have similar election policy preferences compared to Democrats and Republicans in the public.

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For example, even though Democrats and Republicans sharply disagree among the public on whether voters should be given more voting options or only allowed to vote on Election Day, both Democratic and Republican election officials turn out to be more voting. Support providing options. This may prompt them to take similar administrative decisions.

They can only be committed public servants who do their best to provide high-quality, non-partisan election administration.

challenges ahead

Our findings indicate that partisan local election officials generally or specifically do not provide any advantage to their party.

It is still possible that some local officials provide a major advantage to their party or that the Chief Electoral Officer at the state level exerts a partisan influence on the process.

Additionally, the practice of selecting election officials through a partisan process is unpopular. A recent MIT poll found that 75% of both Democrats and Republicans support requiring that election officials be elected on a nonpartisan basis.

If the next generation of election officials resemble the more extreme positions of the public in their electoral policy beliefs, or recent state laws giving partisan officials some power over local elections at the state level affect local officials, there is no guarantee. Not that partisan clerks will continue to conduct elections fairly.

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