21 October 2022

Recognizing Voting Friction

Have you voted before in a U.S. election using your intended mode of voting (by mail or in-person) and living at your current address? If you vote in person, do you know the location of your designated polling place, how you will get there and how long it will take? These factors and any others that make it harder to vote are referred to as “friction.”

Welcome back. A recently published study examined U.S. voters’ perceptions about the relative effects on voter turnout of friction and beliefs (e.g., sense of civic duty, partisanship). The researchers, then affiliated with the University of Southern California and INSEAD, surveyed 1,280 voters from 10 election-competitive states immediately before and after the 2020 presidential election.

Voter survey participants (modified from Table 4, www.pnas.org/doi/abs/10.1073/pnas.2206072119).

Survey Design
In the pre-election survey, participants reported their friction and beliefs. They also indicated their support for friction-related policies (e.g., no automatic voter registration, require exact signature match).

The participants then:
(a) listed up to five factors that would impact their and others’ turnout and the importance of each;
(b) rated the impact on turnout of 12 specific forms of friction and beliefs; and
(c) rated the overall importance on turnout of friction and beliefs.

In the post-election survey, participants reported if they voted and rated any unexpected election-day friction they experienced.

Beliefs versus Friction
Focusing on in-person voters (987 participants), the researchers developed statistical models that showed beliefs and friction exerted essentially equal effects on the 2020 voter turnout. In contrast to the actual equivalence, however, participants rated beliefs markedly more important than friction in driving turnout across all perception measures.

Variables Included in the Friction and Belief Models (from Table 1, www.pnas.org/doi/abs/10.1073/pnas.2206072119).
In their lists of up to five factors, 91% of participants mentioned at least one belief, whereas only 12% mentioned friction. When participants rated the importance of factors they listed, they assigned beliefs far more importance.

When participants rated the impact of specific forms of friction and beliefs, beliefs emerged the more important effect.

The recognition of beliefs over friction held in post-election measures, even among participants who did not vote.

Support for Friction-Related Policies
Lastly, the researchers explored the correspondence between underestimating the importance of friction and support for friction-relevant policies.

They averaged policy support items into an index ranging from strong opposition to strong support for friction-increasing policies. Applying the index, they found that participants who underestimated the effect of friction relative to beliefs on others’ turnout were more likely to support policies that could constrain voting.

This pattern held when controlled for sex, age, income, education, race, voter fraud concerns, past voting experience, partisanship and ideology. Voters who discounted the effect of friction on others’ turnout tended to support policies that increase friction on voting.

Wrap Up
The study showed that potential voters overwhelmingly attributed voter turnout to beliefs over friction, for others as well as for themselves.

While it would be a stretch to think that the hundreds of election-related bills introduced by conservative state legislatures since the 2020 election don’t smack of voter suppression, the study does suggest that at least some support for the friction-increasing policies might reflect a failure to recognize the bills’ effects on would-be voters. 

Election interference legislation, 2021 vs 2022 (from votingrightslab.org/the-state-of-state-election-law-2022-mid-year-review/).
Be sure to vote, and thanks for stopping by.

Study of discounting effect of friction on voter turnout in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2206072119
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/962724

Election interference legislation:

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