Sarah Harrison, Ph.D., and Michael Bruter, Ph.D.

Inside the Mind of a Voter

Electoral Ergonomics, the 2020 Elections, and the Pandemic

Organizing the 2020 elections in the face of the pandemic: What do people want?

Posted Aug 19, 2020

In recent years, U.S. presidential elections have always been exciting and fractious occasions where the fractures splitting society appear as obvious as ever. Since the infamous 2000 election, significant questions have pertained to the organisation of the vote, including the type of ballot paper used, the widespread choice of voting machines in a number of counties, and questions of registration and identity verification.

While those elements are often looked at from the point of view of safety, they are all also part of a critical concept that we define in our recent book Inside the Mind of a Voter (Princeton University Press) as electoral ergonomics. We define electoral ergonomics as the interface between the psychology of voters and the organisation of the election. In fact, we frame it as an equation involving voters’ psychology, details of electoral organisation, and the perceived function of elections which, however surprising this might sound, actually changes in voters’ perceptions depending on how their electoral experience is designed by institutions.

In that sense, electoral design does not only affect who votes or how the integrity of an election can be controlled, but will also modify the electoral thinking, emotions, and potentially choice of a given voter. Here are three examples relating to the effects of electoral ergonomics from our research:

  1. People who use a paper ballot will consider their options longer before casting their vote than those who vote using a voting machine;
  2. People who vote in a polling station tend to be more sociotropic than those who vote from home (i.e., they tend to vote more according to what they think is best for their country as opposed to what they think is best for them personally);
  3. Those who vote in a polling station will tend to feel more efficacious about their vote and more projectively efficacious than those who vote from home (i.e., going to a polling station will be more likely to give you a feeling that your vote matters and also that it is part of a broader societal movement which involves “people like you”).

Those effects have been largely understudied in political psychology, and those are only a few examples of the effects that we find. Till now, however, there has never been any question of a U.S. election being disrupted by a health crisis of the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic, and this raises unprecedented questions for electoral organisers, politicians, and citizens alike.

At the Electoral Psychology Observatory, we have partnered with opinion specialists Opinium to launch “Hostility Barometers” in both the UK and US, regularly surveying American citizens (as well as British ones) about how they feel towards others, how they perceive the atmosphere of elections and also how they want elections organised. The Hostility Barometer series coincides with the ERC-funded project “The Age of Hostility," which is one of our main projects at the observatory.

The second wave of the Hostility Barometer USA is currently being run and we will post its results in a few days, but already we wanted to give you a first set of insights coming from the first wave which we ran in May, six months before the election is due to take place. Those are the results we’ll be comparing wave two with.

A tense election

We asked respondents a series of questions on how they perceived the atmosphere of the 2020 election. The overwhelming result is that most of the adjectives that U.S. citizens use to characterise it are negative. They predominantly see the atmosphere of the elections as tense (50%), intense (49%), divisive (45%), frustrating (44%), and aggressive (43%). 38% even describe that atmosphere as poisonous. By contrast, positive adjectives are seldom seen as capturing the atmosphere of the election. If you feel that the atmosphere of the 2020 election is friendly or pleasant, then you are part of a very small minority of Americans sharing such positive evaluations (17%).

Organising an election under the pandemic: What do the people want?

What is more, well before it became part of the mainstream public debate, we had a feeling that some arguments would emerge relating to postal voting or the possibility to delay the election. As part of Hostility Barometer 1, we thus also asked respondents questions as to what they wanted, with three main priorities: understanding whether they would support any major change (such as a delay in the election or a move to all-absentee voting), whether they would prefer nation-wide decisions or differentiated responses depending on the state of the pandemic in various parts of the country, and finally who they would trust to decide how to adapt the organisation of the election if at all.

Probably the single most important result is that as of May, the vast majority of Americans (73%) wanted the election go ahead exactly as planned in terms of date and organisation even if a delay or organisational changes were possible. 57% would not want the election to be postponed nationally, 52% would oppose delaying it in severely affected states only.

Numbers were more balanced when it comes to organisation, with 49% backing the possibility of all polling stations being closed and replaced by an all-absentee election nationwide, whilst 42% would approve such an all-absentee ballot to occur in heavily affected states only.

However, those results hide some important splits across generations and partisan groups. For instance, whilst most Americans would oppose postponing the election, the younger generations would be more supportive of delaying the election (42% support among 18- to 24-year-olds whilst only 25% would oppose it). Similarly, nearly two-thirds of Democrat voters (64%) would support an all-absentee ballot nationwide, but more Republican voters would oppose it (44%) than support it (36%).

Finally, in terms of who they would trust to stir the debate on how to adapt the election, most respondents would prefer both Congress and the President to stay out of it, as few trust them to decide based on what is best for the country rather than what is best for themselves. By contrast, the U.S. Supreme Court and State Electoral authorities benefit from net trust of +27% and +20% respectively. In other words, as of May at least, Americans did not want politicised institutions to meddle with the elections.

What next?

Obviously, we ran those questions before they were precisely politicised and before Trump’s attacks on postal voting. In a few days, we’ll publish another post on the outcomes of the second wave of the Barometer which should give us a sense of what Americans want to see as adaptations to the forthcoming elections now that the pandemic situation is arguably a lot clearer.

Regardless of what we report then, we can be sure of one thing: this will be an election like no other, and whatever is decided as to what to maintain and what to change about its organisation will leave a lot of voters feeling unhappy or wondering if the decisions have been made based on the interests of the nation or the self-serving preferences of some political stakeholders putting pressure on election organisers.


Bruter, M. and Harrison, S. 2020. Inside the Mind of a Voter. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Electoral Psychology Observatory website

Opinium website