America is in the midst of a serious (and sometimes not so serious) debate about election integrity and voting rights. Among the many concerns is partisan election administration, which remains the norm in most of the country – a departure from most other advanced democracies. This is true at both the state and local levels. Today, around half of all local election officials are aligned with a political party. That’s a situation that shocks people in most other democratic countries and has arguably served to undermine trust in the election process.
But how much do partisan local election clerks actually sway elections in their parties’ favor? A recent study examined that question and the answer was somewhat encouraging.
Researchers from UCLA collected data from more than 5,800 clerk elections, comparing outcomes in counties that narrowly elected a Democratic or Republican election administrator.
“Despite the concern that these officials tilt elections in their party’s favor, we find that Democrats and Republicans oversee similar election results and turnout,” according to the report. “To understand why partisan election officials do not noticeably advantage their party, we analyze data on the policies election officials choose. We present evidence that local officials implement neutral policies rather than attempting and failing to advantage their party. While we cannot rule out some important risks of partisan local election administration, including marginal effects that nevertheless tip close elections or a small number of administrators offering their party large advantages, our results imply that local election officials are not typically and noticeably advantaging their preferred party.”
There’s an important caveat. When races are very close, the researchers say the minute advantages detected (less than 0.4 percentage points) could potentially make a difference. Moreover, the study found substantial evidence of continued ethnic and racial disparities in election administration.
The study was in no way an endorsement of partisan election administration, said author Dan Thompson.
Read the study here.