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SURF Mentoring

Potential projects/topics:

In contrast to the extensive attention paid to election officials since 2020, researchers know little about the recruitment, retention, and training of poll workers. This is despite the fact that these crucial individuals are the ones who directly interact with voters and are largely responsible for the ballot-focused labor that makes elections possible.

The dual challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and harassment of election workers deterred many veteran poll workers from continuing their service since the 2020 presidential election. A new crop of poll workers has since emerged and the 2022 EAVS estimated that about 3 out of every 20 poll workers was serving for the first time in that election. New poll workers may enhance election administration in 2024 to the extent that hey bring fresh perspectives, different skill sets, and a desire to promote secure and fair elections. However, new poll workers place additional stress on the system if they require more extensive training or have chosen to serve because of their skepticism about election integrity. Moreover, the adoption in many states of new election laws since the 2020 election poses a serious challenge for the conduct of elections in 2024.

In this project we document the attributes of new and returning poll workers, probe the reasons why poll workers decide whether to continue their service, and examine how they exercise discretion in executing their duties. Our study is undertaken during a period of significant change in many states’ election laws. We plan to survey thousands of poll workers across the country before and immediately following the 2024 presidential election and to identify through questionnaires who is serving for the first time (recruitment), who intends to serve again (retention), their assessments of the preparation for the work (training), and subsequent experiences working the polls

A specific focus or our research is how new and experienced poll workers navigate the myriad of old and new election laws in their respective states. Substantively we study poll worker discretion, the ability to exercise freedom in decision-making. Discretion is sometimes necessary in unexpected situations such as a disturbance at a polling place. But it is problematic if poll workers act contrary to law or guidance of from election officials, potentially resulting in nonuniform administration (Suttman-Lea 2023). We measure poll worker discretion by asking respondents how they might respond to specific situations that commonly arise in the conduct of elections.

We propose that the exercise of discretion may be affected by four factors. First, while returning poll workers might feel more confident about their knowledge and be less flexible in updating their practices as law and technology evolve, new poll workers might also show less regard for standard practices if insufficient training or skeptical attitudes make them prone to use independent judgement. Second, the roles assigned to poll workers affect the possibility for discretion. “Front of house” workers checking in voters have more opportunity for variability than “back of house” workers tabulating large number of mail ballots. Third, changes in election law since the last election may either constrain or motivate poll workers to use additional discretion, depending on whether the new laws impose additional structure on the voting process or run contrary to the way that poll workers believe administration should happen. Fourth, poll workers operating in states with more intense competition between the parties are likely to both experience pressure to err on behalf of partisan interests and to be subject to additional scrutiny by journalists, voters, and election observers. As this summary suggests, all four of these factors may lead to either more or less discretion. And the final three may operate differently for veteran poll workers who have been retained for additional service versus new poll workers who were recruited or otherwise stepped forward to serve for the first time, as well as for those who plan to be retained versus those who expect to end their service as poll workers.

Potential skills gained: Introductory course in Political Science

Required qualifications: Introductory course in statistics, skill with R, Stata or SPSS

Direct mentor: Faculty/P.I.

Mentored presenters may have participated in these courses

POLI 406

HONS 471

Student Project Titles List

¡Vota!: Testing the Impact of Spanish-Language Ballots on Election Results and Preferences

Less Money, More Problems: Evaluating Bail Reform in Harris County

Early Voting and the Contingency Model of Voter Turnout in the 2018 Texas State Senate District 6 Special Election

The Great Awakening: How and Why the Q-Anon Conspiracy Theory Motivates Voters

Unlocking the Vote: Exploring the Impact of In-Jail Voting on Political Participation

Research Areas

Major areas of research include state and urban politics, public policy, elections, and voting behavior.