Election Monitoring and Research at Polls Shed Light on How Americans Vote

Election Monitoring and Research at Polls Shed Light on How Americans Vote

A report released today by electionline.org examines ways that individual observers of the nation's elections – which are under more scrutiny than ever this year – can be a collective asset.   “Dispatches from the Field” finds that, while various groups observe elections for a number of reasons, the information gained from the efforts can help to create a deeper understanding of shortcomings and successes in election administration.

“It has been said that ‘you can observe a lot just by watching,'” noted Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org. “That simple truth is now asserting itself in the field of elections as more and more individuals and groups are finding that in-person observation is a potentially powerful tool in the study of how, when and where Americans cast their ballots.”

In “Dispatches from the Field,” electionline.org highlights a growing interest on the part of academics, journalists, advocates and political parties to gain a better understanding of the election process through observation.  Observers have varied motivations: Partisan groups want to create conditions favorable to their candidates, for example, while advocacy groups hope to further an agenda through studies confirming their hypotheses.  Still, their collective findings have the potential to expand what is known about how elections are carried out in precincts around the country.

The report offers a case study of a recent effort by graduate students at the University of California-Berkeley to study waiting times during an election in the state. Using volunteers with checklists and stop watches, the researchers undertook a low-cost yet eye-opening observation of how long it took voters to cast ballots using a number of different machine types in a variety of precincts.

Additional findings include:

  • Partisan poll-watching efforts, including the Democrats' so-called “army of lawyers” and the more decentralized Republican monitoring efforts, track compliance with federal language requirements, voter ID rules and voter complaints. Those observations have led to better adherence to state and federal laws on Election Day and can start to provide a better understanding of why problems occur at particular polling places.
  • The Associated Press' exit pollsters, stringers and reporters can quickly publicize problems from around the country, as well as filter second-hand reports of problems by providing nonpartisan and politically neutral observation.
  • Interest groups that collect anecdotes from voters via hotlines, Web sites or on-site volunteers can illuminate the magnitude of machine troubles or other Election-Day issues that can be used for later study and problem solving.

The report, the 22nd in a series of election reform issue briefs and case studies, is available at http://electionline.org. To request a printed copy, please contact media@electionline.org.

A project of Pew's Center on the States, electionline.org is a forum for learning about, discussing and analyzing election reform issues.  Serving policy makers, officials, journalists, scholars and concerned citizens, electionline.org provides a centralized source of data and information in the face of decentralized reform efforts.

The Pew Charitable Trusts applies the power of knowledge to solve today's most challenging problems.  Our Center on the States identifies and advances effective policy approaches to critical issues facing states.  Online at www.pewcenteronthestates.org.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit electionline.org.