Mara Suttmann-Lea

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Research

Federalism poses unique challenges and opportunities for the implementation of voting laws in the United States. A lack of federal control and oversight has historically allowed states to experiment with both expansive and restrictive voting laws, leading to a disjointed combination of electoral institutions across American states. Leveraging this variation, my research examines the intermediaries between voting laws and the American public: elected officials, election administrators, campaigns, and party organizations. I evaluate how voting laws both impinge upon and are shaped by these political actors with the aim of explicating how this behavior has affected developments in electoral politics, and citizen engagement and representation in the United States.

Book Manuscript- Convenience at a Cost: The Unintended Consequences of Voting Reforms

Since the 1970s, several American states have adopted a series of expansive voting and voter registration laws aimed at improving political participation. Decades of research dedicated to evaluating the consequences of these reforms for turnout has found, at best, mixed consequences. My book manuscript shifts this focus to evaluate the consequences of two key expansive voting reforms—Early Voting and Same Day Registration—for the strategies of political actors and developments in electoral politics in American states. I argue we cannot fully comprehend the consequences of expansive voting reforms without examining how they shape (and are shaped by) political actors – campaigns, party organizations, elected officials, and election administrators–who have a vested interest in the voter behavior that altered by these reforms. I show that, because of strategic responses by these political actors, expansive voting reforms have a much broader impact than meets the eye. Over time, the development of innovative and enduring mobilization strategies and legal challenges in response to expansive reforms have dramatically altered the electoral landscape within states adopting these reforms, in some cases negatively impinging upon how they are actually delivered to the very citizens they are supposed to benefit.

The book takes a historical-institutional approach, leveraging original state-level archival data on reform adoption, implementation, and adaptation by political actors to establish how these changes affected the decisions of political actors. I begin with the assumption that because expansive voting reforms change when and how citizens register and vote, they also have consequences for the strategies of political actors. The chapters that follow investigate this assumption using case studies of states adopting Early Voting and Same Day Registration. Each case tracks reforms from their initial adoption process to the decisions of political actors over time in response to reforms, explicating the consequences of these decisions for the development of electoral politics over time.

In my cases, I find that variation in the stipulations of these reforms, the politics of the state in which they were adopted, and the time during which they were adopted had pivotal implications for the development of electoral politics within states adopting reforms in ways wholly unanticipated by reformers. Not only have expansive voting laws transformed the ways campaigns are run and brought about sustained legal challenges to the electoral process, their intended effects on political behavior are altered—and in some cases diluted—by the responses of political actors. In work extending from the book, I revisit the consequences of these reforms for citizen behavior, addressing whether political actors mediate the effects of these reforms on participation and turnout by underrepresented groups, and whether a rise in litigation surrounding expansive voting reforms has decreased citizen efficacy and trust in the American electoral process.

The Deserving Voter: Poll Worker Decision Making at the American Ballot Box

Election administrators play a key role in implementing voting laws and bridging the divide between the theoretical intent of voting laws and how they are experienced by voters. While established research on higher levels of election administrators suggest these figures can exhibit bias in their implementation of election laws based on political preferences, this line of inquiry has not been extended to the most direct arbiters of voting laws in the United States: poll workers. This line of my research agenda examines the attitudes and decision making of these street level bureaucrats on the front lines of election administration.

This research is funded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data and Science Lab. It has four separate but interconnected research trajectories. One, I want to know what motivates poll workers to serve in the first place. Two, I seek to establish the extent to which poll workers are descriptively representative of the populations they serve. Three, I consider whether descriptive representation is necessary for substantive representation at the street level of election administration, that is, whether poll workers equally assess voter eligibility of individuals who do and don’t look like them. Finally, I evaluate how state-level voter identification laws shape poll workers’ evaluation of voter eligibility. I am particularly interested in establishing whether stricter forms of voter identification mediate biases in evaluating voter eligibility, and whether states with looser identification requirements—such as those requiring only a signature, leave more room for individual poll workers to exercise biased or subjective discretion when determining eligibility. Concretely, these trajectories compromise distinct papers that form a larger part of my research agenda.

I examine these questions using a pilot survey experiment of poll workers in urban and rural areas in New York state and Virginia being fielded in the fall of 2017, a national survey experiment clustered to account for variation in state voter identification laws fielded in 2018, and in-depth interviews. The survey experiment uses a voter eligibility evaluation scenario to establish whether poll workers make biased assessments of voter eligibility on the basis of physical characteristics like race, while the in-depth interviews provide insight into the actual decision-making processes of poll workers.

Implications

My research agenda focuses on an important yet understudied aspect of electoral institutions: the intermediaries and arbiters of voting laws. Together, these projects bring a new perspective to studies of electoral institutions in the United States. By focusing on the role of context and responses by political actors to these institutions, I uncover consequences missed by current scholarship and shed new light on understudied areas of electoral institutions and administration, deepening and complicating our relationship between the laws that govern voting, political actors, and the American public.

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