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Was There Partisan Bias in the Local Administration of the 2020 Elections?

By Michael Heseltine

One of the notable features of politics in the United States is that elections are administered at the local level. County- or municipality-level officials directly oversee national and statewide elections in their jurisdictions, and must provide constituents with local voting information. These officials hold a large degree of autonomy, often with little oversight or scrutiny.

Do local election officials conduct their duties in an impartial, non-partisan manner? My experimental research conducted in the runup to election day 2020 found that election officials generally performed their duties efficiently and in a non-partisan manner. However, officials in Republican-leaning counties and municipalities were more likely to provide complete voting information to fellow Republicans, potentially better equipping them to cast a valid ballot.

Although this bias is less overt than rejecting ballots or turning voters away from the polls, partisan imbalance in information was still important in 2020. Many states expanded voting options to address the pandemic, and record numbers of voters requested mail-in ballots or opted to vote early in person. The uncertainty presented by these changes, exacerbated by ongoing lawsuits and legal reversals in many states, made voters more dependent than ever on receiving timely, accurate, and complete information.

However, the high stakes of the presidential election, the personal preferences of election officials, and relatively low oversight created a strong opportunity for officials to potentially behave in systematically biased ways – that is, conduct their duties in a manner favoring voters from one political party, while disadvantaging voters from the other.

Here's how I conducted my 50-state experiment.

In order to assess whether local election officials displayed systematic partisan bias in providing information to voters, over 4,000 election officials in all 50 states were sent requests for voting information by e-mail 30 days before the election. The content of the e-mail was randomly assigned to either suggest affiliation with the Democratic party, the Republican party, or no specific party label. Responses were coded for whether they were helpful, as well as for the modes of voting that were expressly referenced.

Here's what I found.

It is first important to highlight that most local election officials operated in a timely and professional manner. Indeed, 76% of requests received a response, with 68% of requests receiving a response within one working day. Additionally, no evidence emerged of differing response rates based on the partisan signal contained within the e-mail. Responses were often detailed and thoughtful, with reassuring words about the legitimacy of the counting process and expressions of a steadfast commitment to free and fair elections.

However, the different modes of voting referenced by officials did vary, both by the partisanship of the county/municipality and by the partisanship expressed in the e-mail request. In general, counties/municipalities which voted for Trump in 2016 were less likely to provide helpful responses and less likely to reference vote-by-mail or early in-person voting. Specifically, this decrease was confined to responses to non-co-partisan e-mail treatments.

Using a statistical model which accounts for varying characteristics and response rates of individual states, the results suggest that election officials in areas which voted for Donald Trump in 2016 were 7% more likely to mention early in-person voting in response to e-mails containing a Republican signal, compared to no party signal, and 4% more likely to reference by-mail voting. These are statistically significant differences, and no such differences occur by partisan signal in areas which voted for Clinton, suggesting that while officials in Republican areas were less likely to provide helpful information overall, they were more likely to provide complete information to constituents who signaled an aligned Republican partisan affiliation.

The implications of these results are twofold. Firstly, despite operating under difficult circumstances, the vast majority of election officials provided accurate and impartial information to voters, regardless of partisan preferences. However, officials in Republican areas do appear more likely to provide complete information to co-partisans. It is also notable that the greatest effects were found for Republican voters in reference to early in-person voting which is the mode that early voting tallies suggest was most utilized by Republicans voters.

What this experiment cannot tell us, however, is whether these disparities in information supply ultimately impacted the ways in which any voters actually chose to vote in this election, or whether the chances of any individual casting a valid and tallied vote were actually increased or decreased. Therefore, caution should be exercised in attempting to extrapolate any specific potential electoral effects from these results. However, the evidence does highlight the important and often overlooked role that local election officials play in administering elections in the United States, as well as the potential for partisan bias which may influence a small but significant minority of these administrators.

As we turn now to the final counting of votes in this election, the reality that ostensibly national and statewide elections actually exist as a collective function of a series of thousands of local administrative bodies, each operating with a high degree of autonomy and procedural variation, should not be forgotten or overlooked.

Michael Heseltine is a PhD Student at the School of Public Affairs at American University.

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