Persistent Bias Among Local Election Officials

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Authors Denis A. Hughes, Micah Gell-Redman, Charles Crabtree, N. Krishnaswami, Diana Rodenberger, Guillermo A. Navarro Monge
Journal/Conference Name AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW
Paper Category
Paper Abstract Results of an audit study conducted during the 2016 election cycle demonstrate that bias toward Latinos observed during the 2012 election has persisted. In addition to replicating previous results, we show that Arab/Muslim Americans face an even greater barrier to communicating with local election officials, but we find no evidence of bias toward blacks. An innovation of our design allows us to measure whether emails were opened by recipients, which we argue provides a direct test of implicit discrimination. We find evidence of implicit bias toward Arab/Muslim senders only. ∗The data, code, and compute environment required to replicate all analyses in this article are available at the Journal of Experimental Political Science Dataverse within the Harvard Dataverse Network, at: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/8E1IIM (Hughes et al., 2019). The authors are aware of no conflicts of interest regarding this research. Racial bias that limits access to the ballot threatens basic principles of democratic equality. One potential source of bias that has received little attention are the street level bureaucrats who administer elections in the U.S. (Lipsky, 1980). An audit study conducted during the 2012 U.S. election cycle showed these local election officials responded at significantly lower rates to inquiries from voters with putatively Latino, as opposed to white, surnames (White, Nathan and Faller, 2015). In this paper we report the results of a similar audit study performed during the 2016 election cycle. We find that the previously observed bias against Latinos is persistent. We also extend the previous study by testing the effects of two racial primes other than Latino. Voters with Arab/Muslim names received responses at significantly lower rates (11 percentage points) than whites, while black voters did not. The two primary motivations for this study are to determine whether the previous finding of bias toward Latinos stands up to replication, and to examine whether this bias extends to blacks and Arab/Muslim Americans. In spite of the ample evidence of racial disparities in political participation (Hajnal and Lee, 2011; Abrajano and Alvarez, 2010; Hajnal and Abrajano, 2015; Garcı́a-Bedolla and Michelson, 2012) and in every-day life (Bertrand and Mullainathan, 2004), relatively little empirical work demonstrates the role of race in limiting access to the ballot in contemporary America (McNulty, Dowling and Ariotti, 2009), and some claims in this area have aroused skepticism (Hajnal, Lajevardi and Nielson, 2017; Grimmer et al., 2018). The pervasive discrimination that blacks face in various arenas of American politics (Butler, 2014) suggests that this group could be at risk of bias in interacting with local election officials. While there is also ample evidence of discrimination toward Arab and Muslim Americans (Gaddis and Ghoshal, 2015), this group has received comparatively less attention from scholars (Jamal and Naber, 2007; Panagopoulos, 2006). In an era of political rhetoric increasingly characterized by appeals to group identity, it is particularly important to understand how racially-motivated bias impacts the day-to-day mechanics of elections for a range of racial/ethnic groups. To seek evidence of bias, we focus on the thousands of local-level administrators charged with conducting elections in the United States. These bureaucrats are generally capable of exercising discretion in carrying out their job duties, which include responding to inquiries about the mechanics of voting and eligibility to participate in elections. Our core contention is that in exercising such discretion, street-level bureaucrats may be consciously or unconsciously influenced by the characteristics (e.g., race or partisanship) of individuals seeking public services (Lipsky, 1980; White, Nathan and Faller, 2015).
Date of publication 2019
Code Programming Language R
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