When it comes time to decipher amiguous ballots in a vote, can officials put aside their own political biases to judge such ballots objectively?
According to new research from Duke University and the University of Michigan, the answer is a resounding “No.”
In the new study, researchers Peter Ubel and Brian Zikmund-Fisher found that people’s judgment is unconsciously clouded by their own political bias — regardless of whether they are a Republican, Democrat or member of some other party.
This finding highlights the difficulty that election officials — the people in charge of judging ballots — have in viewing such ballots objectively.
“People of all political stripes are blind to their own biases,” noted Ubel. “This helps explain why we live in an increasingly polarized political environment, and why it is so difficult to agree on who has won close elections.”
In November 2008 in Minnesota, the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken was so close that the state was forced to determine voter intent on thousands of ballots that had been filled out incorrectly.
In the new study, the researchers presented hypothetical ambiguous ballots to 899 Minnesota residents and asked them to judge voter intent before indicating who they had actually voted for in the 2008 U.S. Senate election.
In all four ballots, respondents who voted for Coleman were significantly less likely to award an ambiguous vote to Franken. The exact same pattern was observed in reverse for Franken supporters.
“This finding raises fundamental questions about the ability of people to evaluate ambiguous ballots in a neutral manner, and goes a long way toward explaining why it is so difficult to resolve close elections in ways that satisfy all participants,” note the researchers.
“The election in Minnesota was essentially a tie, with the ultimate outcome depending on many decisions about which votes to count, and who to award those votes to. Our study demonstrates that many of these decisions are susceptible to unconscious partisan bias. Ballot design, and the methods of awarding disputed ballots, should be revised to account for such unavoidable biases.
“Fortunately, it is possible to design ballots in a way that overcomes these biases,” the authors write. “Ballot design, and the methods of awarding disputed ballots, should be revised to account for such unavoidable biases.”
The new study is to be published in January in the journal PS: Political Science and Politics.
Source: Duke University