LSE scholars aim to increase the allure of the polling booth

Observatory looks beyond politics to psychology and ergonomics for ways to boost voters’ democratic participation

February 6, 2020
Polling booth
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Academics and political commentators interested in boosting electoral turnout often ask the wrong questions about voters and elections, according to Michael Bruter, professor of political science at the London School of Economics.

“We always try to understand why people vote for the left or the right, and whether they vote or not,” he tells Times Higher Education. Yet if we want to encourage people to vote, it is “more important to understand whether elections make people happy, make them emotional, bring them resolution and a new sense of the legitimacy of institutional systems and so on”.

For more than a decade, Professor Bruter and his colleague Sarah Harrison, assistant professorial research fellow at the LSE, have been studying these themes as part of a project titled “Inside the Mind of the Voter”, funded by the European Research Council. Their book of the same name will shortly be published by Princeton University Press.

Their work, which now covers 27 countries, has led the researchers to develop the notion of “electoral ergonomics”, which Professor Bruter defined as the understanding that “every small detail in the way you organise an election triggers different aspects of the voter’s psychology”.

Many other researchers, he argued, “study the organisation of elections from the point of view of fraud, cost and efficiency, while assuming that the design will be neutral in terms of how individuals will behave. It was assumed that increased access to postal voting in the UK would make more people vote but that they would still vote in the same way. We found that this is not the case. When young voters vote postally, they are more likely to vote for extreme parties, even controlling for their ideological preferences.

“Similarly, internet voting makes people feel less in control of their democracy and less satisfied with their electoral experience,” he continued. “It may have paradoxical effects on turnout in the long term.”

Much of this work is ongoing but, to take it to the next level, the LSE has created an Electoral Psychology Observatory. This was due to be unveiled at a major event in the House of Commons on “Global Elections Day” (6 February), where Professor Bruter expected to see “at least a dozen heads or deputy heads of electoral commissions”, as well as leading academics from across Europe and beyond.

The event will feature the launch of an online “almanac of electoral ergonomics” listing no less than 120 factors believed to have an impact on the psychology of voters. Several other significant projects will also be rolled out. One, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, will draw on the experiences of at least nine countries to explore questions around first-time voters. For example, said Professor Bruter, there was evidence that “voting in one of the first two elections where you are eligible to do so makes you more likely to be a lifelong voter”, so researchers hope to find ways to “help electoral commissions design procedures for making that first vote special”.

Another is a scheme aiming to “design the ideal polling station”. “Architects design schools or hospitals according to their function,” noted Professor Bruter. “We will be asking about how they would design a purpose-built polling station and the criteria for selection – none are generally accepted across countries. We will then be testing the designs through virtual reality experiments to provide data to electoral commissions.”

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Reader's comments (1)

There's certainly a need for reform of systems surrounding the voting process. My husband, who is blind, decided to ask for a postal vote this year as I work a long way from home and wouldn't be around to take him to the polling station. The first response was to send him a paper form to fill in! Eventually someone from the council made a house call to assist... then his ballot paper arrived. This had an accompanying form that had to be filled in and signed.... GRRR.