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As the 2018 midterm elections come and go, Mara Suttmann-Lea, assistant professor of government, will continue her research into the figures who operate on the front lines of our democracy.
By Doug Daniels
CC Mag: You specialize in examining the nuts and bolts of how our elections are administered. The different laws that regulate how people vote create a patchwork system that varies from state to state, city to city and county to county. Should the federal government play a bigger role in that process to ensure more uniformity?
Suttmann-Lea: That’s really tricky, because in the Constitution there’s no federal prescription for how elections should be run. And states have historically been pretty protective of the way their elections are run.
States have so many different needs, contingent on population size, or the number of big cities that they have, so it’s difficult to develop a federal infrastructure that would account for all of those differences.
[More federal oversight is]challenging, because the U.S. election system is a massive behemoth that’s unwieldy and hard to guide since there are so many moving parts.
CC Mag: You’re in the early stages of a research project involving poll workers. Can you describe that work and explain what inspired this avenue of research?
Suttmann-Lea: It all started when I saw a presentation that actually had nothing to do with poll workers, but that made me think of them. It was a presentation that looked at the behavior of pharmacists. These are people who provide services and exercise some level of discretion in those services, and it occurred to me that poll workers are in a similar situation. That just got the ball rolling as far as researching them.
CC Mag: How and where are you pursuing that research?
Suttmann-Lea: I conduct interviews with poll workers to try and understand how they make decisions. I want to understand how they’re applying the laws that govern voter eligibility in their respective areas. In a state like Virginia, for example, there’s a photo I.D. law, but in a state like Illinois, they’re required to verify voter eligibility through signatures that are on record. Examining those two different processes allows me to get a sense from the poll workers’ perspectives, of how they interpret the laws that they’re applying, and it gives me a better understanding of who these folks are, in a larger sense.
These are the people who are actually giving you your ballot, checking your I.D., making sure you’re on the voter rolls or matching your signature. Because they’re really on the front lines of our democracy, I want to know more about who they are.
CC Mag: What patterns are you seeing so far in terms of what types of people serve as poll workers?
Suttmann-Lea: It depends on the state. They do trend toward being older folks who are retired, who have time to actually work on Election Day, because it’s a 14-hour endeavor, sometimes longer if you’re dealing with vote- counting issues. So these are people who have the time to do this either as a volunteer, or as paid staff that receive modest stipends.
CC Mag: What type of training do poll workers typically receive?
Suttmann-Lea: Training varies from state to state, from county to county and from municipality to municipality. But it typically involves at least a day or two of in-person training. There are poll worker manuals that are thick documents that poll workers have to understand. It goes without saying that there are certainly mistakes that are made, and oversights that need to be rectified.
In my experience, poll workers take their jobs seriously and believe strongly in the democratic process, and are doing this out of a sense of civic duty.
CC Mag: How have certain voting reforms aimed at boosting voter participation, such as early voting and Election Day registration, impacted voting habits and how campaigns behave?
Suttmann-Lea: Early voting is an interesting example of a law that was designed to improve turnout, but the data shows that hasn’t been the consistent outcome when we actually look at the differences between states that have early voting, and states that don’t. In part, that’s because whenever there’s a change in a voting law, it doesn’t only affect voters, but campaigns and political parties are also going to adapt to that change as well.
From the campaigns’ perspective, what we’ve seen is that early voting has forced campaigns to devote more resources to mobilization efforts over a longer period of time, instead of focusing on Election Day. And from the voters’ perspective, this can, in effect, dilute interest, and dilute the intensity with which citizens are focused on Election Day.
CC Mag: Is there evidence that laws allowing things like mail-in voting, early voting, same-day registration and other measures intended to boost participation lead to fraud?
Suttmann-Lea: There is very, very, very limited evidence that individual in-person voter fraud happens on a widespread basis. There’s a study [published] in the Loyola University Law Review done by a law professor at the Loyola Law School, that found a miniscule percentage—not even 1 % out of a million votes—were fraudulent.
CC Mag: Over the past several years, we’ve seen an acceleration at the state level when it comes to instituting more- restrictive voting laws. Is there any evidence this has depressed turnout among underrepresented voting blocs?
Suttmann-Lea: It’s too early at this point to have enough data to know one way or the other. What the research shows, though, is that swing states that are competitive in presidential elections, especially Republican-controlled states that in 2008 saw an uptick in minority voter participation, are the states that are more likely to at least propose these restrictive laws that disproportionately impact minority voters. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the laws always pass, but there is a statistical relationship between efforts to enact these laws, and states that are competitive, that have in recent years seen increasing minority voter participation, and that have Republican-controlled legislatures.
CC Mag: Overall, has your research made you more or less confident in our electoral process?
Suttmann-Lea: It’s no secret that the 2016 elections shed a light on inconsistencies in the system and points that are open to vulnerabilities. I would say, I, along with many other Americans, have reduced faith in the structural integrity of our electoral system as a result of that. But I do see reason for hope in the sense that when it comes to the people directly responsible for providing ballots to voters, there’s a potential for that experience to be improved upon and for voters to have positive experiences. That research has left me feeling more optimistic about future reforms.
CC Mag: No matter how well-intentioned poll workers might be, what can be done to mitigate the inevitable dimension of human error in administering our elections, and to ensure the laws are being carried out properly and consistently?
Suttmann-Lea: I think the big-picture response is that we need to remove the room for subjectivity. Having workers identify voters based on verifiable, concrete information that everyone has, like the last two digits of a social security number, would be one way to eliminate that subjectivity. Humans are obviously fallible, but I always like to assume the best of people, and there are a lot of folks out there working every day to make our elections fairer and more secure.
CC Mag: Part of your job is to prepare students to be active and informed participants in the political system. What’s something you want to make sure they take away from your classes?
Suttmann-Lea: I ask my students to look at what it takes to win a campaign, to win an election, and whether or not those realities comport with the ideals that we have for how we want our democracy to run. The gap is usually pretty significant in terms of what campaigns have to do, what we have to do to get candidates elected, and the ideals that we have for ourselves as a country.