The provision of free and fair elections is a public service critical to maintaining accountability and responsiveness of elected officials. This article examines the administration of polling stations and shows that voting outcomes can be influenced by the religious and caste composition of the teams of officers who manage stations on election day. It also provides evidence on the importance of the form of identification possessed by voters.
Questionable neutrality of election administration is a wide-ranging concern. In the most recent completed round (2010-2014) of the World Values Survey – more than
In recent research (Neggers 2018), I consider polling station administration during the 2014 general elections in India, which involved approximately eight million election officers and security personnel, and more than 800 million electors. I focus on two districts in Bihar that covered more than 5.6 million electors across roughly 5,500 polling stations. Analysing polling-station-level administrative data on officer assignment and voting outcomes, I find that the presence of a Muslim or Yadav1 officer at a polling station significantly impacts voting outcomes, but that these effects are attenuated when the rate of government-issued voter identity card coverage is higher. To better understand the mechanisms through which these effects occur, I fielded surveys with more 5,100 randomly-selected polling station officials and electors from the 2014 elections in the same areas of Bihar as the administrative data. A combination of evidence from these surveys suggests that one relevant channel is own-group favouritism by election officers in the identity-verification process that occurs before votes can be cast.
Polling station officials and voting outcomes
Determining the impacts of the composition of election officer teams on voting is typically difficult because other factors that themselves affect voting outcomes may also influence the placement of officials at polling stations. A government might, for example, assign election personnel with greater experience to manage more troubled locations in an effort to maintain neutrality or, alternatively, the ruling party may station supporters as officers in strategically important areas to influence voting outcomes in their favour. In such cases, comparisons across stations with different types of officers may give biased estimates of the effects of officer team composition on voting.
Avoiding problems of this type, I use a natural experiment that took place during the 2014 elections, where the government randomly assigned State personnel to the teams of typically 4-5 officials managing polling stations on election day. This random assignment generates variation in the religious and caste composition of officer teams, that is uncorrelated with other characteristics that may themselves influence voting. I can then determine the effects of team composition on voting by comparing outcomes at polling stations with different sets of officers.
Analysing voting outcomes in Bihar across polling stations with different team types, I find that the presence of a Muslim or Yadav officer on a polling station team (‘mixed team’), versus having a team with no Muslim or Yadav officers (‘homogeneous team’), significantly shifts the vote share margin, on average, between the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalitions in favour of the RJD by 2.5 percentage points or 13.8%.2 Underlying the vote share impact, I also observe that mixed teams increased the votes received for the RJD by 4.9% and decreased votes for the BJP by 4.2%. Votes received by the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)) and overall turnout were unaffected.
Next, I consider the potential relevance of the possession of government-issued elector photo identity cards (EPICs) to the impacts of officer team composition. The verification of elector identity that occurs at polling stations prior to voting involves discretion in the decision-making of election officers, and the scope for this discretion may be influenced by the identification documents that potential voters possess. While the EPIC is the most straightforward and officially preferred form of identification, potential voters are also allowed to use a number of other documents for identity verification. They may be less certain, however, about the details of the rules surrounding the use of those documents, making them less likely to dispute officer judgments regarding qualification to vote, or increasing their susceptibility to influence in
If team composition influences the administration of the identity verification process– and citizens’ EPIC possession reduces the scope of potentially discriminatory discretion available to officers during that process, areas with higher EPIC coverage may see reduced impacts of team composition on voting. Testing for such a relationship, I do find that the effects of officer team composition are concentrated in regions with lower levels of EPIC possession, as shown in Figure 1. Having determined that the identities of the officials managing polling stations on election day can matter for voting outcomes, I then consider why this might be.
Figure 1. Variation in