Poll Worker Decision Making at the American Ballot Box

Date01 November 2020
Published date01 November 2020
AuthorMara Suttmann-Lea
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(6) 714 –718
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20920266
As the street-level bureaucrats with whom voters most
directly interact when voting in person, poll workers have
substantial discretion in determining whether individuals are
eligible to vote (Alvarez & Hall, 2006; Lipsky, 1980).
Understanding how they make decisions about voter eligibil-
ity is especially important given that voter confidence is
shaped by these interactions (Hall et al., 2009). This article
examines this “human element” of election administration.
Using 24 semi-structured interviews with poll workers from
Chicago, Illinois, I assess how they make decisions about
implementing Illinois’ signature verification voter eligibility
Rather that conducting a causal analysis of what predicts
poll worker decisions, this article describes what constitutes
their decisions (Cramer-Walsh, 2012). This type of analysis
provides insight into how poll workers interpret the laws
they are implementing, illustrates the discretion they exer-
cise, and highlights how ambiguity in election codes and
training can lead to varying interpretations of statutes by
their most direct arbiters. Evaluating voter eligibility by sig-
nature comparison is not universal across American states,
although a handful of states (6) also use signature compari-
sons at polling places, and a majority (35) use them in the
counting of absentee ballots.2 While these findings do not
generalize to all U.S. elections, they are emblematic of the
kinds of discretionary decisions that poll workers make
My evidence shows substantive variation in how poll
workers evaluate signatures, as well as what they think they
should do in the case of a questionable signature. These were
largely reliant on personal interpretations of how to match
signatures rather than guidance from manuals or training.
Respondents also offered varying interpretations for how
they might proceed in the case of mismatching signatures
that—with few exceptions—did not correspond with steps
from the Chicago poll worker manual. I conclude by discuss-
ing two patterns that respondents felt may improve the con-
sistency of their performance: working in one’s home
precinct or neighborhood and the same precinct from elec-
tion to election, and serving with the same team over time.
While not a total remedy for the challenges of ensuring qual-
ity poll worker performance discussed in this article, these
are considerations that deserve closer scrutiny in future
Overall, these data highlight the subjectivity with which
poll workers may interpret and apply voter eligibility laws,
especially with criteria as variable as signature matching. This
raises questions about the extent to which voters are treated
equally under the law. It also illustrates the value of speaking
with poll workers themselves about how they interpret the
laws they are implementing. Given the discretion afforded poll
workers, I suggest that future research examining the impact
920266APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20920266American Politics ResearchSuttmann-Lea
1Connecticut College, New London, USA
Corresponding Author:
Mara Suttmann-Lea, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Avenue, New
London, CT 06320-4125, USA.
Email: csuttmann@conncoll.edu
Poll Worker Decision Making at the
American Ballot Box
Part of Special Symposium on Election Sciences
Mara Suttmann-Lea1
Street-level bureaucrats set the terms for policy implementation and often operate under limited oversight. In American
elections, poll workers are the street-level bureaucrats tasked with implementing a jurisdiction’s laws for verifying voter
eligibility. Using in-depth interviews with 24 poll workers from the city of Chicago, this article assesses how poll workers
make decisions about voter eligibility under Illinois’ signature-matching law. Respondents discussed a range of considerations
used when they examine voter eligibility. The evidence I present suggests they rely on personal perspectives and experiences
in their evaluations. Respondents also offered a range of responses for how they would proceed in the instance of a
mismatching signature—including requesting voters provide identification even though it is not a requirement in Illinois
unless a voter is challenged. Broadly, these results illustrate how poll workers’ subjective interpretations of election law
shape their decisions and can lead to idiosyncratic applications of election law.
election science, election administration, poll workers, voter identification, street-level bureaucracy

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