Prof. Suttmann-Lea: The word “civic duty” comes up so much, um, feeling like, yes, you get a small stipend for doing the work, but it’s really something that is, you know, seen as I’m just, this is, I’m doing my part to support my democracy and what’s unique about the poll workers in Chicago––FYI they’re also called election judges––but what’s unique about the poll workers in Chicago is it’s my understanding that the Board of Elections tries to assign them by neighborhood. So you’re working in your neighborhood, you’re working in the neighborhood where you live. And so you see neighbors and you see friends, and I’m sure this is the case in other jurisdictions across the country as well, but so many of them spoke about that being a benefit like being able to serve and support their neighbors.


Prof. Sardo: My guest today is Dr. Mara Suttmann-Lea. Professor Suttmann-Lea is Assistant Professor of Government at Connecticut College. Her research focus is on American politics and in particular the relationship between election administration, political campaigns, and political participation. She has two current research projects that she’s focusing on. The first is a book project on how political parties and campaigns have adapted to voting reform laws such as early voting and same-day voting registration. Her other main project, which we spoke about today, studies poll workers in the United States, and she’s trying to understand why poll workers serve in the first place and whether or not the demographic representation of poll workers affects how they evaluate voter eligibility. She is also the host of the podcast “What Voting Means to Me” in which she tries to figure out – through interviews with various people – why people participate in the core element of American democracy: voting.

I spoke to Dr. Suttmann-Lea about her research, her speculations on changes to election administration because of the coronavirus, and about her new podcast. You can also find out more about Dr. Suttmann-Lea and her work in the show notes.

Prof. Sardo: Professor Suttmann-Lea, thank you for joining me. How are you this morning?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea I am doing very well this afternoon. It’s, it’s afternoon here on the east coast. I’m doing very well today. Thank you.

Prof. Sardo: Well, thanks again for chatting with me and my students. I wonder if I could just get started by asking you to describe your current research projects on election laws and poll workers for us.

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: Yeah, absolutely. So I just had a piece published that’s looked at poll worker decision, decision making. So for folks who may not be familiar poll workers are the people at polling places who will verify that you are on the voter rolls, check you in, give you your ballot, confirm your eligibility to vote and then, you know, essentially, the ones that are shepherding you through the voting process in person.

And so I was really curious about sort of how they make decisions about certain criteria that voters need to provide so signatures, for example, oftentimes identity is confirmed via a signature. And so I have spent some time talking with them about what that process looks like. And it was really exciting to see that work put out there. And so I’m continuing my work with poll workers, I have a paper that I’m working on that looks at the relationship between the racial makeup of a precinct and the racial makeup of poll workers and the number of provisional ballots that are ultimately cast in that precinct. And so that’s sort of a larger, larger-n study––I don’t know if that’s–– there’s larger sample size. When you do in depth interviews, it’s, it’s a lot of work, and so there’s much smaller sample size, um. 

But yeah I, I really became interested in studying poll workers towards the end of my dissertation, which wasn’t on poll workers, but I wanted a second projects to think about, in addition to turning the dissertation into a book and I think they’re so under-studied and so undervalued, because like literally elections would not happen without them. And so they’re a virtual army of folks, volunteers. I mean, they do get paid in some places, but it’s, it’s really sort of this unknown part of democracy and I just wanted to learn more about them. So I’m continuing on that adventure, and I do have a couple other projects in the works that are related and I’m in the process of turning my dissertation into a book but poll workers are have been my big passion for the last couple of years.

Prof. Sardo: What stands out when you’ve interviewed these poll workers, like what stands out to you about like what they say about why they’re doing it, or their experience, is there any like just cool insights you can share with students?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: Yeah! Yeah, absolutely. So the first thing I want to say, and this might sound a little pedantic, but there is of course selection bias and who ultimately decides to do an interview with me. So I don’t want to make any claims about like the representativeness of my sample, but it is really affirming to know that there are folks like the ones that I talked to out there running elections because every single one of my respondents if they didn’t get into it for like “I want to support democracy” reasons, that’s ultimately what they come out of it with. And they will keep doing it from year to year. There was a few, I think, that had a really bad experience that, you know, got into it because they were curious about elections and wanted to do something to support their community and then just the experience wasn’t great. 

But you have a lot of repeat customers, so to speak, a lot of repeat folks who will continue to do the work and the word “civic duty” comes up so much, um, feeling like, yes, you get a small stipend for doing the work, but it’s really something that is, you know, seen as I’m just, this is, I’m doing my part to support my democracy and what’s unique about the poll workers in Chicago––FYI they’re also called election judges––but what’s unique about the poll workers in Chicago is it’s my understanding that the Board of Elections tries to assign them by neighborhood. So you’re working in your neighborhood, you’re working in the neighborhood where you live. And so you see neighbors and you see friends, and I’m sure this is the case in other jurisdictions across the country as well, but so many of them spoke about that being a benefit like being able to serve and support their neighbors. And so that’s something, that’s a subject of another paper that I’m just starting to think about that’s a little bit more optimistic than the one that just came out. And I’m really excited about working on that.

Prof. Sardo: So you said that poll workers are fairly understudied in political science, do you have any reasons to speculate why this really important aspect of our democracy hasn’t been studied in the same way that political campaigns and political parties and voting behavior has been studied?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: Yeah, the, the short answer is data availability and the longer version of that is it’s really hard to sample these folks, something I’ve learned. It’s not publicly available information in every state. In Illinois it is; there’s a statute on the books that makes the information available. But oftentimes, you have to go through the next level of election officials, which would be like your local county clerk, local election supervisor who maintain and keep the list of poll workers who they’re training and they are also resource-strapped and staff-strapped and don’t necessarily have the time to or the goodwill, you know, to help out a researcher. And I say that, I mean that, very kindly because, you know, I usually try to offer something in return, you know, when I’m asking for data but yeah that’s, that’s a big reason. 

So, you know, there’s this big interest, as you know, in American politics about generalizability and about developing nationally representative samples and it’s so challenging to do something like that with poll workers. And so I think that work that looks at them closely maybe doesn’t necessarily get considered in some of the top journals, because the sampling issues are so challenging. And at the same time, I think it’s worth noting that like each election jurisdiction is unique. And so if you know something about one jurisdiction, that still says a lot. And so that’s sort of the– what I try to push when I’m, you know, looking at only one jurisdiction in my research.

Prof. Sardo: So just to follow up on that, so like the rules governing poll work, poll election judges and poll workers in Chicago might be different than the rules governing them in New York City or Los Angeles. So it’s hard to get that type of generalizability across jurisdictions.

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: Yes, exactly. So like we might be interested in understanding, you know, a big interest in election administration is the role of implicit bias and voter evaluation of voter eligibility and we have pretty good evidence from multiple jurisdictions that racial and ethnic minority voters are more likely to be asked for identification inappropriately. But the identification laws vary from state to state and even sort of like the the poll-worker procedure for checking that is going to vary. So there’s so much like rich contextualization that you need to take into account if you’re going to make generalizable claims about this population.

Prof. Sardo: So to bring things to more current events: do you– how do you think the coronavirus pandemic will affect election administration as for both the fall election, do you think it will have lasting effects going forward? Do you think that as we’ve kind of seen in some of the states where various political parties have forced the primaries actually happen in purpose, or in person, do you think that, that we will see like different states having different kinds of formats and procedures for the fall election?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: I absolutely think that the variation in how elections are adapted in response to the pandemic will mimic the variation that we already see in election administration in terms of how elections are run. And I do have a very strong hunch, you will see far more mail ballots cast. There are states, Republican and Democrat, that have taken the step of sending an absentee ballot application to every eligible voter, every registered, I believe every registered voter––that’s an important difference there. But any case, sending out absentee ballot applications and, and that’s just an important like source of information, you know, even if you don’t end, like just knowing that this is something that you can do it might not be something that everyone knows. So I expect to see a lot more mail balloting, I am very concerned about the places that do have in-person polling. I know the number of polling places will be reduced, so that raises concerns about long lines and it also raises concerns about staffing polling places because we do know this about poll workers: on average they are elderly. They’re folks who are retired who have the time to take a whole day and it’s a long day. The, the folks I’ve talked to are up at four, sometimes they don’t wrap up until 10 or 11 at night. It’s a long day. And so you’re talking about a really vulnerable population and that really concerns me. I imagine that places that do have in-person polling will have challenges staffing their polling places. And I think it’ll be really important for young folks, maybe, you know, college kids to step up to the challenge and and serve on, serve as a poll worker on election day, for sure. And there’s a little bit of extra cash, you know, so that’s great.

Yeah, I’m, I’m trying to think, you know, mail balloting is the big thing that everyone’s talking about right now and I’m really concerned about what will happen if the elections are close, if the presidential election’s close, if there’s key Senate elections that are close, key House races.

Prof. Sardo: So you mentioned college students getting involved as poll workers, what’s the process for becoming a poll worker?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea:  So as with everything in American elections, it varies. The first step would be to figure out who in your county is your local county election supervisor. You know, so there is sometimes information online, but more often than not, it might involve a phone call, which for our generation and the generation of our students might be something that’s challenging. But no, the short answer is: whoever is the local election supervisor is, you know, has hopefully information online but if not you know will have information about the training and hiring of poll workers. And it usually involves a couple of days of training and there’s a big handbook in a lot of jurisdictions. And then, yeah, the day, you know, as I mentioned can be a pretty long day. But you know, it’s also a chance to get to know folks in your community, you’re probably working with folks who are living in your community and, you know, to circle back around something I said about my poll workers that I interviewed, many of them really felt that sense of civic duty gratification that just feels good from, from serving the folks and your community and helping them vote. It’s kind of like a really cool thing to see democracy in action. So.

Prof. Sardo: So, do you, I assume, do you have to be a registered voter yourself, or citizen?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: Yes, yes, you need to be a registered voter in your jurisdiction.

Prof. Sardo: Okay, so you can’t go work as a poll worker if, if you’re a registered voter in another state, and you’re attending college out of state would you––?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: That’s a good question. Um hmm. I would imagine that law varies from state to state. It’d be something worth asking. Um, yeah, that’s actually something I don’t know. I think that you would have to register as a voter in the– like if you’re a student who votes absentee you’d have to register as a voter in that jurisdiction. I mean, like, I know there’s a lot of students at Northwestern, for example, in Chicago and all the other Chicago universities, you know, who are registered there and who serve as poll workers. But yeah, that would be probably like a jurisdiction state– slash jurisdictions specific measurement. And actually if it’s useful for your students, I’d be happy to do a little digging into California election code and send some stuff along to them. It’s something I spent a lot of time doing anyway, looking at election codes. So I could probably give them some more specific expertise– so it’s LA county, you guys are in LA county?

Prof. Sardo: Yes.

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: Well, yeah, LA County is one of the best. You guys have an amazing election supervisor. So, you’re in good hands.

Prof. Sardo: Cool. So stepping away from poll workers and election laws for a second, why did you decide to become a political scientist? What attracted you to this profession?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: So, this involves kind of a funny story about dressing up as Bob Dole for Halloween in 1996, and going around and telling people they should vote. I don’t remember it being like a partisan thing. I just think he was a little– I felt he had some mannerisms that felt a little bit more recognizable. Like I didn’t have a mask, I just was like, dressed in a suit. So that’s like funny little anecdote telling you that I was paying attention to politics at a very young age, I was 10 years old at the time. And I always knew I wanted to pursue a degree in politics, I declared that major right away when I went to college and also really had a strong sense that pursuing higher ed and in teaching politics was going to be important to me. You know, it’s worth noting that like I came into grad school with an entirely different research agenda. And then I realized, sort of drawing the thread of my life and how much voting has meant to me––I remember my first vote so vividly––and how, you know, important understanding and uplifting like the structures of our democracy are, just to me personally, really drove me to pursue like the research that I do and and that path as a political scientist.

But yeah, I think I started off as, you know, more of a– an activist-type political science, or political scientist and have not necessarily moved away from that. But just sort of, you know, dove further into the realm of research and and teaching, of course, as well, but I still try to incorporate those elements of my life into the work that I do, too.

Prof. Sardo: So what do you have any advice that you could share with Occidental students, whether academic advice, political advice, getting through another however many weeks of social distancing advice, anything you could share?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: Yeah, yeah. Um, I think, let me think about this. Yeah, I think I can offer some academic and maybe personal advice, all in one. There was something that was told to me my first semester of graduate school, which was really challenging and I– I’m, you know, sure, you know you Professor Sardo might remember that, that first year is rough. And I think, you know, that certainly applies to being an undergrad in college as well. There’s a lot of transitions that are happening. But some– a piece of advice I was given was “if you walk through the world with the perspective that you are always learning, you’re not here to prove anything, you’re just here to learn…” I just found things felt a little easier if I wasn’t putting that pressure on myself to walk into a classroom perfectly understanding a reading, as long as I had something to say about it. That was, you know, made it clear that I read it, of course, but as long as I have something to say about it and I could model, you know, what it looks like to ask a question, to be curious. So I think walking through the world with a curious mindset is– goes a long way in helping folks shed insecurities and uncertainties and doubts about their worth or their intelligence and sort of operating from that perspective rather than, like, you know, you’ve got to prove yourself. And of course, life is really ultimately about balancing those two things. We do get evaluated, we do get judged, we get graded, all of those things. But having that operating underneath the surface has been really helpful for me over the years and it was just some of the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given and I was very lucky it came in my first semester of graduate school, so

Prof. Sardo: I think that’s great advice. 

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: Yeah, yeah. And in terms of, you know, navigating pandemic and social distancing, I– I told this to my students. Um, I think that they will come out of this being so… so much more resilient and kind and compassionate than like generations that have come before them. I’ve been really heartened by the responses of my own students in terms of their willingness to be vulnerable in terms of how they’re feeling but also, you know, their demonstrations of resilience. So I would say take good care of yourself. It’s such a cliche, but it’s so true. And when you do that, a lot of other stuff can fall into place.

Prof. Sardo: Great, well, thank you. Before we go, is there anything that you’re working on now that students could, if they wanted to learn more about you or your research that they could plug in or tune into?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea Yeah, I think probably the the fun– and the most fun and accessible thing would be my podcast which is called “What Voting Means to Me,” subtitle: “a podcast about democracy” and it features interviews with different folks, really a pretty random assortment of folks, and we just essentially talk about what the act of voting means to them, and I also get what I call like their “democracy biography”: so first memories of what it’s like to live in a democracy, and you know what what those experiences have been like, and I’m hoping to get some non-voters on as well because their perspectives are equally as important. So I think that would be a fun– a fun thing. So I’m happy to send you, you know, the info in an email. Um, but yeah, if they want to sort of follow along my research, passions, and interests in a way that’s pretty accessible that would be a great place to start.

Prof. Sardo: Sure. And we will put the link to that podcast in the show notes for this, this one.

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: Cool, cool. 

Prof. Sardo: Anything else you want to share before we sign off today?

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: I don’t think so. This has been really fun. I love talking about election administration and elections and I like that my research kind of moves us a little bit away from partisanship, you know, just thinking about the nitty-gritty of how elections are run is something that’s really important, and I hope people pay more attention to it.

Prof. Sardo: Alright, well, thank you very much, Professor Suttmann-Lea, Assistant Professor at Connecticut College. Thank you for your time and good luck with the rest of your summer and the fall semester and whatever form that takes.

Prof. Suttmann-Lea: Yes, thank you for inviting me.


Prof. Sardo The Oxy Poli-Cast is a production of the Politics Department of Occidental College. It is hosted, recorded, and edited by me, Professor Christopher Sardo. I am assisted by Junko Anderson, class of 2021. You can find more information about today’s guest, our department, and how to subscribe to our summer newsletter by checking out the show notes.