Election Officer Identity and Voter Behavior: Evidence from India
In contexts in which individual ethnic or religious background strongly aligns with particular political parties, the identities of polling place staff members may influence election outcomes, even in the absence of inappropriate behavior. To combat the potential for a polling station to come under the control of a political party on election day, in 2004 the Election Commission of India mandated that states must randomly assign election officers to manage polling stations on election day. The researcher leveraged policy of random assignment of election officers to polling stations in Bihar, India, to test the channels through which the presence of election officers who belong to politically salient religious or caste minority groups may affect voting ability and decisions.
Election management and administration—including the staffing of polling stations on election day—vary widely across countries, and can have important subsequent impacts on election results and policy choices. For example, the identity of polling place staff may be an important factor influencing election outcomes in contexts where individual ethnic or religious background strongly aligns with particular political parties. Firstly, if the verification of voter identity involves the discretion of election officials, officers could behave with bias, possibly disenfranchising qualified potential voters or enfranchising unqualified individuals. Secondly, officials may selectively allow members of the party they support to attempt to influence potential voters, either through illicit persuasion or intimidation. Even in the absence of inappropriate behavior by the election officers, their presence at the polls could influence voter behavior if potential voters can identify the religious or ethnic identity of the officials. If a team of election officers all identify with the same group, this homogeneity could amplify the influence of the officials’ identities. How does diversity, or lack thereof, of the staff at polling stations on election day affect voting outcomes?
To combat the problem of “booth capturing,” in which a polling station comes under the control of a political party on election day, the Election Commission of India mandated in 2004 that states must randomly assign election officers to manage polling stations on election day. This policy is generally viewed as having been effective in deterring outright booth capturing by weakening the ability of political parties to coordinate with polling station officials in advance. However, biased election officer behavior based on officer/voter identity could still be an issue in places where identity is a strong indicator of political party affiliation.
In Bihar, the location of this evaluation, certain religious or caste groups consistently align with specific political parties. Hindus constitute the religious majority with 83 percent of the population. Muslims are the largest religious minority with 17 percent of the population.1 Elite Hindu castes tend to align with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party. Yadavs and Muslims traditionally support the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party. Yadav is a non-elite Hindu caste and designated Other Backward Class (OBC) by the Indian government. The BJP and RJD parties—two of the five major parties in Bihar during the last decade—consistently oppose each other.
To understand how the presence of election officers of politically salient religious or caste minority groups may affect voting outcomes, the researcher examined the impact of the identity composition of teams of election officers on voter behavior during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Bihar, India. This election covered two districts, with approximately 5,561 polling stations, 23,384 officials, and 5.6 million registered voters. The study leveraged the existing national policy that mandates the random assignment of election officers to polling stations.
In every election, staff positions at each polling station correspond to a distinct district-level pool of state government employees from which officers are selected and subsequently complete polling duty training. Four state employees—one serving as the presiding officer and three as polling officers, collectively termed the polling party—staff each location. Within a district, each individual is first randomly assigned to a polling party, and then each group is randomly assigned to a polling station. Registered voters receive a specific polling station assignment for each election and are only able to cast a vote at that station.
For this evaluation, the treatment group consisted of the polling stations at which the team of election officers represented two or more religious or caste groups, i.e. heterogeneous election official teams in which at least one Muslim or Yadav officer staffed the polling station (32 percent of polling stations). The polling stations at which no election officers with a Muslim or Yadav background were stationed, served as the comparison group (68 percent of stations.) To measure the impact of the election officer team composition on election outcomes, the researcher collected data on officer assignments and party vote shares from the election.
In addition to examining poll results, the researcher conducted a series of survey experiments between May and September 2015 after the election with 915 election officials and 4,320 voters to explore potential channels through which election officer teams could influence election outcomes. First, the researcher tested for bias in officials’ determination of voter eligibility by describing a hypothetical individual attempting to vote without the preferred form of voter identification. For each official, the researcher randomized whether the individual’s name signaled a Muslim, Yadav, or Brahmin background and asked the official to assess the likelihood that individual would be able to cast a vote.
Second, to explore whether officials and voters observed biased behaviors at the polls, the researcher provided officials and voters a list of statements that described potential events at their polling station during the 2014 election and asked them to report how many occurred. Some randomly assigned individuals received a list that included sensitive statements about biased treatment towards voters and attempts to influence votes. Others received the identical list with only non-sensitive statements. By comparing the number of statements reported between the treatment and comparison groups, the researcher was able to identify the likelihood that biased behavior had occurred on election day.
The results suggest that diversity within teams of election officers impacted voting outcomes and improved the impartiality of polling station management. Having a heterogeneous team of election officials increased vote shares for the RJD party, traditionally supported by Muslims and Yadavs, and decreased votes for BJP, narrowing the margin between the two parties by 2.3 percentage points. The presence of a diverse team also impacted neighboring stations within the same building or compound, as the effects of either impartial or neutral management could spread among teams in close proximity. For each heterogeneous neighboring team, the vote share margin favoring the RJD party at a polling station increased by 2.6 percentage points.
The impact of having a heterogeneous team of election officials was smaller at polling stations with greater shares of voters that possessed identification cards, suggesting that diverse teams reduced the potential for officials’ bias to lead to disenfranchisement. A one percentage point increase in the share of voters with identification cards reduced the effect of a diverse team on vote share margins favoring RJD by 0.5 percentage points. This impact suggests that teams of election officials representing multiple religious and caste backgrounds and identity card coverage could serve as substitutes in strengthening the neutrality of the identity verification process.
These results in actual votes were supported by the survey experiments, which suggest that identity did influence the behavior of election officials. When asked to assess whether a hypothetical individual would be eligible to vote, election officers were ten percentage points (26 percent) more likely consider the hypothetical individual eligible if they shared the same religious or caste background. The results of the list experiments suggest that more than twenty percent of voters and election officials believe that at least one of the officers at the polling stations that they either staffed or attended to vote treated voters differently based on religion or caste and/or tried to influence voting behavior.
Though the results suggest that diversity within teams of election officers can improve the impartiality of polling station management, political or administrative factors might undermine the feasibility of mandating mixed team composition. In the absence of this mandate, policies which reduce the potential for officers to act with discretion, such as the widespread provision of voter identity cards, may be promising alternatives to reduce reducing the ability of local-level election officials to influence voting outcomes.
Neggers, Yusuf. "Enfranchising Your Own? Experimental Evidence on Polling Officer Identity and Electoral Outcomes in India." Working Paper, December 2015.