In 2008, voters in San Joaquin County, Calif., cast ballots in two primary elections and turned out in record numbers for the November presidential election as elections officials instituted a new paper ballot system after years of national debate on how best to conduct elections.
That same year, a wide swath of academics from University of the Pacific joined with the county Registrar of Voter's Office to study what else could be done to improve accuracy by trying out ways to prevent the kinds of mistakes that keep votes from being counted.
And they found evidence that showed changing how voters learn about the voting process, improvements in poll worker training and increased use of vote-by-mail ballots can improve the accuracy of the vote count.
The findings are laid out in a series of essays in "More Votes that Count: A Case Study in Voter Mobilization," a new book edited by Robert Benedetti, a political science professor at Pacific and director of its Jacoby Center for Public Service and Civic Leadership. Students and teachers from disciplines ranging from communication to graphic design to drama took part in the study.
And in the process, it has helped shape elections taking place this year, too.
"All in all, the study has definitely paid off," said San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters Austin Erdman, one of the contributing authors. "San Joaquin County has become better at conducting elections through that study."
Some design changes to voter information guides made in 2008 to make the sample ballots more accessible remain this year.
And poll worker training builds on the study's findings that using interactive training techniques and role playing can better prepare election workers for Election Day, he said.
Overall, the study in 2008 helped reduce voting errors as well as increased the number of voters registering to vote by mail, he said.
The study took a multipronged approach to try to prevent voters from making the kind of mistakes that would invalidate their ballots. That required some attention to making sure voters filled in ovals completely, were careful not to make stray marks on ballots or, in the case of mail-in ballots, remember to sign the return envelope while putting the signature in the correct spot.
In 2008, these messages were hammered home to voters through print, radio and television spots as well as on signs in polling booths. Even a logo designed to promote voting by mail depicts a pen filling in an oval replacing the letter "O" in the word "vote." These can be viewed on a DVD included with the book.
Voters were sent individual postcards inviting them to register to vote by mail. Voters receiving the postcards signed up to vote by mail in greater numbers than those voters who received the same information with their sample ballots. The voters receiving and returning the postcards voted in higher numbers, too.
And while it wasn't clear if increased mail registration translated to increased registration, overall, the shift to mail-in ballots contributed to the cumulative effect that reduced the rate of voter error, according to the study.
There were three elections in 2008: the presidential primary in February, the state primary in June and the presidential election in November. From February to November, the percentage of spoiled ballots cast fell from 2.62 percent to 1.94 percent.
Over all three elections, the error rate for mail-in votes was less than 1 percent, while the error rate at the polling places was higher than 3 percent.
While the study focused on San Joaquin County, it discussed how the county fit into the rapidly changing election environment of the past decade.
National reforms were put in place following the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, which exposed flaws. The push for modernization and increased accuracy led to widespread use of electronic, touchscreen voting machines.
San Joaquin County was one of many counties to use federal funds to buy such machines in California.
But security concerns from the state meant that all counties, including San Joaquin, switched to paper ballots counted by optical-scanning machines by the end of 2008. The touchscreens are still in limited use for voters with disabilities.
After Florida, there was an attitude that all problems could be fixed as soon as everybody was voting on the machines, Benedetti said.
San Joaquin County's elections office recognized that with the departure of the machines, it had to look elsewhere to make improvements, he said.
Which is where the study comes in.
"If we want to make the voting process better, we need to go to the social sciences, not engineering," he said.
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