How partisanship can undermine perceptions of election fairness and integrity

Adam Ambrogi and Paul DeGregorio wrote today about “The 5 Principles of Election Integrity.”

The article highlights the challenge for election integrity that is created when we local election officials are chosen by competitive partisan contests:

In most cases, election administrators work hard to be fair and transparent and to promote integrity. But a large percentage of election officials are elected to their offices on a partisan ticket or appointed on partisan basis. This can lead some to believe that these officials will favor one political party over another in their decisions.

This is exactly right–in an era of deep partisan polarization, even ostensibly non-partisan policies can be swept up in partisan competition.  Partisan and ideological sorting creates a worrisome feedback loop, where partisans express deep levels of distrust and even anger at any political actor from the opposite party, no matter how anodyne the statement or non-partisan the issue.

I have been collecting data on public perception of election officials using the Cooperative Congressional Election Study for a number of years.   In 2010, I asked a series of questions about public attitudes toward local and state election officials, including how they should be elected and whether or not they could be fair in election disputes.

The results are both encouraging and discouraging.

Source: 2010 CCES

Source: 2010 CCES

The encouraging result is that local election officials receive high levels of approval when compared to the US Congress, the Supreme Court, and state governors and legislatures.  (Higher scores mean a higher level of approval; scores above zero mean that a majority of respondents said they either “strongly approved” or “approved” of the job performance.)

Source: 2010 CCES

Source: 2010 CCES



When it comes to how we should choose local election officials, the survey respondents endorse elections, but are more than twice as likely to opt for non-partisan versus partisan contests.  This is neither encouraging nor discouraging, but is what I (and I think Ambrogi and DeGregorio) would expect.

The more discouraging results appear when I asked respondents about election disputes, and whether or not state (not local) election officials would act fairly in resolving such a dispute.
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It’s encouraging that a plurality of 39% do think that state officials would be fair, but more than half the survey thought they would not be fair or didn’t know.

And among those who answered “no” or “don’t know,” just over one-third thought that election officials would favor their own party.

I wondered if there were partisan differences underlying this second question, and it turns out that there are.   As we would expect in an era of party polarization, partisans are worried that elections officials would favor candidates of the other party.  But what jumps out to me are the totals in the third column.  Democrats and Independents mostly assume that election officials will decide disputes in favor of their own party; Republicans choose this option only slightly less often than “favoring Democrats.”

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The good news, I suppose, is that almost 40% of respondents think that election officials will be fair in the case of an election dispute.  But among the other 60%, they assume that partisan self-interest is the way disputes are resolved.

As long as partisanship invades election administration via competitive elections, and as long as elections continue to be close (and disputed), perceptions of fairness and integrity of election administration will remain at risk in some quarters.