Seeing Is Believing: An Experiment on Absentee Ballots and Voter Confidence

Published date01 November 2020
Date01 November 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(6) 700 –704
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20922529
Accurate counting of ballots is necessary to ensure voters
can hold politicians accountable, chosen representatives take
office, and that peoples’ interests and preferences are
reflected in new policies. As public confidence in outcomes
is important to the legitimacy and accountability of govern-
ment, understanding what affects voter confidence and why
some voters have lower confidence than others is also impor-
tant. Almost all of the previous research on voter confidence,
or a voter’s belief that ballots are counted correctly (Atkeson
et al., 2015), is based on postelection surveys. Overall, con-
fidence levels have been fairly high in the United States, but
some distinct patterns emerge. For example, voters are con-
sistently more confident that their own vote was counted cor-
rectly than all votes nationwide (Atkeson, 2014), and since
2008, Republicans have consistently had lower levels of con-
fidence than Democrats in the accuracy of both their own
vote and the national vote (Sances & Stewart, 2015).
Previous research finds that absentee voters consistently
have the lowest levels of confidence that their vote will be
counted accurately at both the individual and national level
(Atkeson et al., 2009; Stewart et al., 2010), but there is no
explanation for why absentee voting results in lower confi-
dence. One possible explanation has to do with differences in
the voting experience. Absentee voters do not have direct
interaction with the electoral process the way that Election
Day or early-in-person voters do. They do not interact with
poll workers, voting equipment, or other voters at the polls and
do not see their ballots opened or votes tabulated (see also
Burden and Gaines, 2015). Another possible explanation is
low confidence in the postal system, which the vast majority
of absentee or vote-by-mail (VBM) voters rely on to deliver
their completed ballot.1 While voters can now track their ballot
online and see that their ballot was received by the local elec-
tion official, they often have no way of knowing if their ballot
was accepted or rejected during the counting process. Seeing
the ballot physically accepted by the optical scanner or enter-
ing their vote directly into an electronic voting machine may
help increase voters’ confidence that their vote was tallied and
lessen concerns that their ballot may be rejected.
Experimental Design
Due to the increased popularity and growing use of absentee
or VBM ballots, it is important to gain a clearer understand-
ing of how absentee voting influences voter confidence. One
way is to use an experimental study, where participants vote
using an absentee ballot in a polling place or voting center
environment. This design provides certainty that the ballot is
received, but maintains uncertainty that the ballot will be
counted. Alternatively, if voting in isolation and not having
the ability to consult with poll workers leads to lower confi-
dence, the experimental setting should remedy this and there
should be no difference in levels of confidence. In this
922529APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20922529American Politics ResearchBryant
1California State University, Fresno, USA
Corresponding Author:
Lisa A. Bryant, California State University, Fresno, 2225 E. San Ramon,
Fresno, CA 93740, USA.
Seeing Is Believing: An Experiment on
Absentee Ballots and Voter Confidence
Part of Special Symposium on Election Sciences
Lisa A. Bryant1
Since the 2000 election, researchers have taken an interest in the role of voter confidence and its importance as an assessment
of public trust in electoral outcomes. Many factors may influence voter confidence including the way in which a voter casts
their ballot. Previous research has found that absentee voters consistently report the lowest levels of confidence that their
votes were counted correctly. This study uses an experiment to examine how voting method impacts voter confidence.
Voters were randomly assigned to either an in-person or absentee voting condition. Participants assigned to the absentee
condition expressed lower levels of confidence that their votes would be counted correctly than those assigned to the in-
person voting condition. Voters who had to ask for assistance during the experiment also reported lower levels of confidence.
This could have implications for voter confidence levels nationally as vote-by-mail continues to grow in popularity.
voter confidence, absentee, vote-by-mail, experiment, ballot

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