In Brief

Government officials too often ignore psychological factors that affect the accuracy of the election process, according to social and behavioral scientists who spoke at a March 16 Capitol Hill briefing on election reform. The event was sponsored by the American Political Science Association, the Consortium of Social Science Associations and APA.

In the wake of last fall's electoral spectacle, both houses of the U.S. Congress are considering voting-reform legislation that could change the mechanics of the election process. APA and other sponsors of the briefing hope it will help ensure that election reform includes not only technological improvements and greater clarity, but also consideration of the psychological factors that can contribute to errors and confusion in voting and ballot tabulation.

Several bills are calling for the creation of advisory panels to aid in election reform--and many of those panels will consider questions in the domain of psychological science, says Geoffrey Mumford, PhD, of APA's Public Policy Office.

"Psychologists can optimize human performance within any complex system," Mumford says, "but that expertise is often ignored."

Speaking at the briefing, Ohio State University human factors psychologist David Woods, PhD, said successful changes in voting procedures will involve "basic, well-understood issues in the design of devices to enhance usability and accuracy."

Woods was joined at the briefing by political scientists Michael W. Traugott, PhD, of the University of Michigan, Charles H. Stewart III, PhD, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Rodolfo O. de la Garza, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin. The scientists addressed several social scientific issues relevant to election reform:

  • Traugott discussed research on the effects on voter participation of using alternative methods, such as early voting, mail-in ballots and increased access to absentee voting. Although these options have increased the number of eligible voters who cast votes, research suggests that they have attracted few new voters to the polls.

  • Woods stressed that human factors research can address myriad aspects of election reform. Such reform must go beyond replacing antiquated technology, he said.

  • Stewart described a recent study, conducted with colleagues at MIT and the California Institute of Technology, that found that punch cards, optically scanned ballots and ATM-style electronic voting machines tend to yield more spoiled, unmarked and uncounted ballots than other systems. Such variability likely reflects differences in how people relate to machines, the researchers believe, rather than machine failures.

  • De la Garza argued that although traditional obstacles to voting, such as explicit racial and gender discrimination, have nearly disappeared, many barriers to access remain, particularly for people of low-socioeconomic status. These include laws that prohibit noncitizens and convicted felons from voting and early poll closings that keep some workers from casting ballots.