Release Date: April 10, 2020
BUFFALO, N.Y. — The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the 2020 election into disarray.
Look at Wisconson, where voters had to choose Tuesday between risking their health or skipping the primary. With the internet and alternative voting methods, one might ask: Do we even need polling places?
The answer is yes, according to University at Buffalo political scientist Jacob Neiheisel, an expert in political campaigns and election administration.
“There are real benefits to going to the polling place. For one, voter confidence tends to be higher with in-person modes of voting. Also, the excitement associated with a single election day is likely to have positive effects on voter turnout,” says Neiheisel, PhD, associate professor of political science in the College of Arts and Sciences at UB.
Neiheisel adds that he’s not endorsing Wisconsin’s decision to proceed with its primary. However, he thinks there will be increased scrutiny on the value of polling places and what role technology might play as an alternative, especially with upcoming primaries in Pennsylvania, New York and other states, as well as the November presidential election.
His thoughts on an internet-based voting system?
“I don't think that we will quite go so far as to see online voting happening anytime soon, although a handful of other countries have made this work,” says Neiheisel, citing Estonia as an example. “There simply isn’t much confidence in internet voting either among the general public or among computer scientists.”
How might the COVID-19 pandemic change how citizens vote in November and other future elections?
“I think that we are going to increasingly see more states adopting some form of "convenience" voting in the wake of this pandemic,” Neiheisel says. “I believe that more and more people are going to see that provisions for things like vote-by-mail are going to be a positive thing to have on the books, even if they are just seen as a backup in the case of crisis. There will, of course, be resistance to such changes in some circles, as Republicans often believe that increases in turnout will disadvantage their side. The reality surrounding turnout and partisan advantage is a bit more complicated, and it is possible to point to instances wherein changes to the way in which elections are run actually benefitted Republican candidates at the polls.”
Could these possible voting solutions suppress turnout?
“Election reforms can sometimes have perverse effects in the sense that they may have unintended consequences,” says Neiheisel. “Take, for instance, the introduction of early voting. Several studies have now shown that early voting, while certainly more convenient for many voters, is associated with declines in voter turnout when implemented in isolation (that is, without the adoption of same-day registration or election day registration). The explanation for this counterintuitive finding often centers on the fact that those who vote early number among some of the most engaged members of the electorate. These engaged voters often are very good at mobilizing the people around them. If they vote prior to the day of the election, however, they may be less likely to talk others into going to the polls.”
Could these possible voting solutions increase turnout?
“Just about every other institutional fix that could be implemented is likely to have a positive effect on voter turnout, however small,” says Neiheisel. “Election day registration, for instance, has repeatedly been shown to be associated with higher levels of voter turnout. All-mail voting has similarly been linked to greater degrees of electoral participation. The effects of these changes tend to be rather small, however, so additional focus needs to be placed on what are often labeled ‘behavioral’ correlates of voter turnout. Mobilization drives are one such ‘behavioral’ element, but it also helps if voters perceive real differences between the candidates.”