Mara Suttmann-Lea

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In my research, I am interested in the different ways political actors respond to changes in voting laws and election administration. My aim is to understand how these elements interact to produce unintended consequences for American politics. My work focuses on both institutional and behavioral consequences, with an emphasis on American political development, political campaigns, election administration, and political engagement. Methodologically, my research takes multiple approaches to data collection and analysis, including archival data, in-depth interviews, statistics, case studies, and historical institutionalism.


My dissertation project, entitled Convenience at a Cost: The Unintended Consequences of Early Voting, focuses on one change in electoral institutions that has been on the rise since the 1970s: early voting. This law has been adopted in several American states, and allows any citizen to cast a ballot before Election Day by mail or in person without having to provide a reason for doing so. The project illuminates the processes by which this singular law has had sweeping consequences for the development of modern American elections. I show the different processes through which adaptation to early voting by political actors has dramatically transformed the dynamics of elections, incentivizing shifts in voter targeting and mobilization strategies that have raised the costs of running for office and added pressures for candidates to engage in litigation contesting elections. Strikingly, these changes occurred not just at the level of high-visibility races for state and federal positions, but also in races for local offices and issues.

I provide empirical evidence for these processes using a mixed methods approach and draw from research in American political development, rational choice, and historical institutionalism. The project uses an original, fine grained qualitative dataset culled from the archives of six states to conduct comparative-historical analysis, and quantitative data on campaign finances over a 28 year time period.

My dissertation offers lessons for how we should understand the development and consequences, intended and unintended, of current and future election reforms. It also deepens our understanding of the complex relationships between electoral institutions, political campaigns, and how citizens experience and engage in the political process. The aim of the project is to establish early voting as a key component of American political development whose impact is clearly evident today.

Additional Projects and Future Research

In my other research, I take findings on the causal mechanisms underlying campaign adaptation to early voting from my dissertation to explore the interactive effect of these two factors on political participation. In one paper, entitled Towards More Equal Participation? Early Voting, Mobilization, and Turnout Biases, I show that Senate campaign efforts impact the effect of early voting on biases in voter turnout between the wealthy and the poor. I show differential effects contingent on party and the type of early voting reform. Though I find no meaningful effect of either form of early voting given Republican efforts, my evidence shows that in person early voting decreases these biases when Democrats spend more money. However, the opposite is true for universal absentee voting; this reform increases biases in turnout between income groups when Democrats spend more money.

I am also in the planning stages of work that explores how the contextual changes wrought by early voting affect other political outcomes. I am particularly interested in evaluating whether early voting, which can raise the cost of running for office, also advantages incumbents, who often have a financial advantage over resource strapped challengers. I am also interested in assessing whether early voting affects citizens’ efficacy and trust in the American electoral process. The mechanisms through which I propose this might occur are 1.) via non-traditional forms of balloting like absentee voting, and 2.) via an increase in challenges to election outcomes on the basis of absentee voting. Both of these dynamics, I argue, may lead citizens to have less confidence their votes are counted and trust in the integrity of election outcomes.

Finally, I have a project entitled: The Deserving Voter: Poll Worker Decision Making At the American Ballot Box that addresses the principle-agent problem in the context of street level-bureaucracy in local government election administration. Using the city of Chicago as a pilot study site, it combines in-person observations from polling places and in-depth interviews with poll workers to evaluate interactions between poll workers and citizens, poll workers’ perceptions of their jobs, their motivations for working elections, and difficulties they encounter when verifying voter eligibility. Using a survey experiment, I also assess the criteria by which they determine voter eligibility and the extent to which they make subjective or strategic evaluations of voter eligibility beyond what election law prescribes. I am particularly interested in whether poll workers make decisions about voter eligibility based on racial characteristics.


Together, my scholarship brings a new perspective to the study of electoral institutions in the United States. By focusing on the role of context, the responses of political actors to early voting, and exploring the development of this relationship over time, my dissertation uncovers unintended consequences of this reform missed by current scholarship. Emphasis is often placed primarily on assessing whether a law has its intended effect. Yet the United States offers a seemingly infinite array of election laws, leading to situations ripe for unintended consequences that affect political contestation and how Americans experience and participate in the political process.

My research embraces this diversity in election laws and political contexts in the United States, using it to identify broader, systemic implications of these differences for American politics. My in-depth, multi-methodological approach explicates outcomes that cannot be explained by conducting a snapshot analysis of these developments.

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