Are all precinct voting sites created equal? Maybe not

October 30, 2008

( -- The lights may matter. So may the signs, the knowledge of poll workers and whether the location has been used as a polling place in the past.

Not all precinct voting sites are created equal, and quality has a direct impact on voter turnout, according to new research.

More than 40 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a study conducted across Los Angeles found that precinct voting sites in predominantly non-white and low-income neighborhoods tend to be less visible, less stable, harder to find and harder to navigate than those in high-income and predominantly white neighborhoods.

"We found that lower-quality sites experience lower voting, even after we controlled for average income, education and race of the neighborhood," said Matt Barreto, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington and lead author on a study in the September issue of Political Research Quarterly.

Before the March 2004 primary, researchers had 90 undergraduate students survey 960 precinct voting sites, 57 percent of all used in Los Angeles in that election. The survey takers asked 29 questions, and photographed the most relevant things they noticed.

Survey results indicated:

• 20 percent of polling places did not have street addresses clearly posted.

• 25 percent didn't have adequate outside lighting for evening voters.

• 33 percent didn't offer adequate parking.

• 20 percent weren't fully accessible for voters with handicaps.

• 12 percent didn't have sufficient lighting to read and mark the ballot.

In California, no identification is necessary if the voter's name is correctly listed on poll records, but when survey takers asked lead poll workers what identification must be presented, almost 30 percent said some form of state ID. "This may pose the single largest barrier to voting in the city," the researchers wrote.

The study also indicated that white and high-income precincts were more likely to have better equipped polling sites as well as sites repeatedly used for voting. "If a polling place changes from one election to the next, voters may lose interest in finding it," Barreto said.

Researchers found that lowest-quality precinct sites drew turnout rates that were, on average, 5 percentage points lower than highest-quality ones. This difference could easily alter close elections, according to the article.

"Many citizens don't accurately figure the costs and benefits of voting, so even small increases in the costs can lead to large decreases in voter turnout," Barreto said.

Other researchers on the project were Mara Cohen-Marks, an assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University, and Nathan D. Woods, an economist at Welch Consulting, Inc. in Washington, D.C. Loyola Marymount paid for the research.

Provided by University of Washington

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