I. In Focus This Week
Missoula County, Montana voters are happy with elections process
It’s difficult to get people to agree on much these days, especially in the current election cycle, but voters in Missoula County, Montana seem to agree on one thing…they are pretty happy with how elections are conducted in their county and the county elections office now has the proof.
The county’s Election Advisory Committee, which is comprised of elections staff, county voters and representatives from local central committees, had many assumptions on voter behaviors and barriers, but committee members wanted definitive answers.
Working with the Political Science Department at the University of Montana, the Missoula County elections office surveyed voters to find their overall satisfaction with the voting process in the county and what, if anything was hindering the process.
“Even though we know achieving 100 percent voter turnout in an election is a challenge, it still surprises us to hear voters will not vote,” said Rebecca Connors, administrator of elections for the county. “This survey helped us identify ‘why’ voters may not vote and we can now work to encourage participation or combat the barriers that may lead to abstaining from voting.”
Assistant Professor of Political Science Sara Rinfret was eager to work on the project with the county.
“[A]s a professor of political science and public administration it is important to not only understand how and why individuals vote, but also unpack best practices for public administrators or in this case the county's elections office,” Rinfret said. “And, after all, the public administration side of political science are those individuals that impact our daily lives, our next door neighbors, and hold the keys to implementing public policy in the U.S.”
Rinfret and three students began working with Connors in the Fall of 2015 to develop the survey questions.
The Election Advisory Committee and the elections office wanted to know why voters do not vote, if election costs were an issue for them and if voters were content with the current polling place set up. The University of Montana added questions that captured what voters would like to see more of, barriers to the process and if they are confident in the work the elections office does.
“The Election Advisory Committee and UM worked collaboratively throughout several months to craft these questions; ensuring there were no gaps in data or interpretation of questions,” Connors said. “The University of Montana provided superior data collection, which helped in large part to make certain this project was a success.”
Connors said in the early stages they anticipated mailing a survey to voters in January 2016, but as they researched that option, they learned that the costs involved with mailing and low response rates weren’t going to really meet their goals.
“We have an invaluable partnership with the university and wanted to further our work together to benefit all involved; especially the voters,” Connors said. “The University of Montana presented several different options: mail survey; focus groups and phone survey. The phone survey stood out as the most economical and the most reliable.”
In January 2016, they partnered with the West Research Group to conduct a phone survey. The phone survey cost $8,000 whereas a mail survey would have cost $30,000 and focus groups would have cost between $18,000 and $20,000.
Question topics ranged from voting behavior and beliefs, Missoula County election practices, and efficiency and ease of the voting process. There were 605 respondents with a +/- 4 percent margin of error at the 95 percent confidence level.
Many of the responses aligned with the county’s thoughts and Connors said the Election Advisory Committee is pleased to now work off of reliable data rather than assumptions. She said the respondents were an accurate picture of voters within Missoula County from party affiliation, age, rural and urban voters, and men and women.
“We are especially pleased to find that voters are confident in the work we do,” Connors said. “The responses will also help support future election legislation, such as bills to support online voter registration, which a strong majority of respondents would like to see happen.”
One thing that the elections office discovered is that while the trend across the state and nation for that matter, is to consolidate polling places to alleviate cost constraints, 47 percent of Missoula County voters disagreed on consolidating polling places and that costs of elections were not a top issue.
Since the county elections office is 100 percent funded by local taxpayers, Connors said she will respect that opinion.
“We want to respect that feedback and keep our current arrangements intact,” Connors said.
One thing Connors said she will be doing based on the survey is to encourage the Legislature to adopt online voter registration. A majority of those responding to the survey said they would like to see online voter registration in the county.
In addition to the information garnered from the survey, for Rinfert, it was a great opportunity for her students — one graduate and two undergraduates—who were eager to get practical skills so they can get good post-college jobs. The students helped develop the survey questions and the graphs for the final report. Rinfret their goal is to publish the results in a peer reviewed journal this summer.
“I strongly believe that it is imperative for our students to move from theory (books) to practice,” Rinfret said. “Allowing an opportunity for students to work with me on this project and the county was exciting. I would not be here today if it wasn't for my own professors.”
Connors said the county would be interested in conducting another survey in the future and Rinfret is eager to work with other counties or possibly conduct a statewide voters satisfaction survey.
“I think it was great to see the great work that the county elections office does and to be recognized for it,” Rinfret said. “Often, public administrators are labeled in a negative light and the data presents such a positive story.”
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