What reality TV can teach us about election managment

Not a lot it turns out, but enough for a blog post.

The structure of an Electoral Management Body (EMB) is a critical element in effective and fair election administration.  The legal framework for how the members of an EMB are appointed varies greatly from country to country, with each model offering a unique set of advantages and disadvantages.

Although practitioners should be aware that local context is important, it is always helpful to have an understanding of how EMB design can shape incentives and affect the management of elections.   In a paper submitted to APSA, Barry C. Burden, David T. Canon, Stéphane Lavertu, Kenneth R. Mayer, and Donald P. Moynihan have explored the effect of partisan EMB membership on the body’s behavior.  In their paper, Election Officials: How Selection Methods Shape Their Policy Preferences and Affect Voter Turnout, the authors find that how clerks are selected has a noticeable impact on the body’s priorities.

We employ a uniquely rich dataset that includes the survey responses of over 1,200 Wisconsin election officials, structured interviews with dozens of these officials, and data from the 2008 presidential election. Drawing upon a natural experiment in how clerks are selected, we find that elected officials support policies that emphasize voter access rather than ballot security, and that their municipalities are associated with higher voter turnout. For appointed officials, we find that voter turnout in a municipality is noticeably lower when the local election official’s partisanship differs from the partisanship of the electorate. Overall, our results support the notion that selection methods, and the incentives that flow from those methods, matter a great deal. Elected officials are more likely to express attitudes and generate outcomes that reflect their direct exposure to voters, in contrast to the more insulated position of appointed officials.

I think the recent  kerfuffle with Bristol Palin does a good job of demonstrating this tradeoff in priorities.  Bristol Palin, daughter of the ubiquitous Sarah, lost in the Dancing with the Stars finale the other night.  Palin’s run generated a fair amount of controversy due to the fact that she kept advancing despite receiving poor scores from the judges.  This was exacerbated after accusations surfaced of Tea Party activists exploiting a glitch in ABC’s internet voting system that allowed supporters to cast an infinite amount of votes.   Whether of not this electronic ballot stuffing actually happened in a way that influenced outcomes, it demonstrates how incentives shape behavior for EMBs.  ABC’s incentive for the show’s voting system was access, not security, which is a perfectly understandable tradeoff for what they were doing.  There were definitely steps ABC could have taken to strengthen the verification process, but it would have probably reduced convenience for users.  We shouldn’t be surprised that many reality TV systems have security holes, as long as there is a tradeoff with accessibility involved.

Related, electoral system design is also critical in reality TV voting.  I noticed that Last Comic Standing, for example, used a Cumulative voting system.  Viewers were allowed to cast ten votes, but could distribute those votes in anyway they wanted (meaning they could vote 10 times for one contestant).  I’m guessing this method was employed in order to ensure adequate minority/female representation in the higher rounds.  If we assume that female viewers are more likely to support female contestants, and the same being for minorities, than those viewers would be able to contribute all their votes to the few female candidates while men would spread their votes among men.

Posted on November 26, 2010, in E-voting, Elections, Electoral Systems and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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