Voter Suppression or Voter Fraud in the 2014 US Elections?

Source: Pippa Norris, Holly Ann Garnett, Harvard University – Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), HKS Working Paper No. 040, July 23, 2015

During recent years, U.S. states have often diverged by adopting either more lenient or stricter electoral procedures. What have been the consequences of these laws for the risks of voter suppression or voter fraud? Heated partisan debate surrounds this question. To consider new evidence, the paper studies variations in the logistical costs of registration and balloting in state laws to generate the most appropriate within-country comparison. Part I sets out the conceptual and theoretical framework. Part II describes the research design that takes advantage of a new dataset, PEI-US-2014, based on an expert survey of Perceptions of Electoral Integrity conducted in 21 U.S. states immediately after the 2014 U.S. Congressional elections. This data is combined with a new Convenience Election Laws Index (CEL) summarizing variations in the leniency of state laws for registering and voting. Multilevel (HLM) analysis is used to compare the state-level CEL index against expert evaluations of the integrity of the registration and voting process. Part III presents the results of the analysis. The conclusion in Part IV draws together the major findings and considers their implications.

….The new evidence we analyzed suggests that even after controlling for many factors which might influence expert’s judgments, including their ideological and partisan leanings, state laws for registration and balloting are indeed related to the performance of voter registration and belloting processes. In particular, the analysis suggests that more lenient registration and balloting procedures used in a state are significantly associated with more accurate and inclusive electoral registers, according to expert evaluations. At the same time, based on the analysis, we found no proof that convenience procedures led to more ineligible electors being registered, again according to expert judgments of the quality of state elections. From these findings, it does appear that the assumed trade off between convenience and security is false; we were unable to demonstrate that more lenient procedures increased the risks of voter impersonation, identity theft, or other irregularities in the electoral roll.

Secondly, however, the impact of these state laws should not be exaggerated; convenience state registration and balloting procedures do not affect the overall performance of state elections, as monitored through the standardized PEI index measuring more general perceptions of electoral integrity. This finding is not surprising in many ways. Although controversies about registration and balloting laws receive the most media attention in American, these procedures cannot account for the full electoral integrity score in each state.

This observation reinforces the necessity of broadening our conceptualization of electoral integrity and studying the entire electoral cycle, not just the end stages of the process. Cases around the world demonstrate that electoral integrity can also be undermined by partisan gerrymandering or by malapportionment favoring incumbents when drawing constituency boundaries. Party and candidate registration processes may prove equally problematic, for example where independent candidates or new parties face high thresholds before they can gain ballot access. Imbalanced campaign media coverage can also fail to provide a level playing field, and political finance regulations pose another range of challenges, especially where candidates need to accumulate large war chests to succeed. Voting processes in polling places can be flawed, including issues of ballot irregularities and broken machines, while inaccurate counts or insecure ballot seals can undermine the vote tabulation process. The credibility of the outcome can suffer from undue delays in announcing the results, or by lack of transparency and audit processes. And finally election officials are vital to administering electoral processes and implementing the rules, and problems can commonly arise where authorities lack knowRhow capacity, technical resources, or a culture of impartiality. This study therefore sheds light on some of the reasons why American elections perform so poorly compared with other established democracies – but clearly each of the stages throughout the electoral cycle need to be taken into consideration for comprehensive explanations of patterns of electoral integrity.