The mystery of the Brooklyn voter reg “purge”

Reports from Brooklyn about the “purge” of  over 125,000 voters between last November and the recent presidential primary has turned the spotlight on the maintenance of voter lists. Today’s news brings word that the Kings County Board of Elections’ chief clerk apparently erred by removing voters from the rolls contrary to law.

Pam Fessler’s excellent NPR report on Wednesday about the rules governing removing voters from the rolls makes the point that the laws governing voter list maintenance are pretty clear.  Voters (and reporters) don’t always understand those rules, and when they do, they don’t necessarily agree with them.  For that reason, I’m going to sit back and wait for the reports of the New York City Comptroller and state Attorney General before passing judgement on what exactly happened and who was at fault.

That said, the whole story remains a bit of a mystery, first, because statistics about New York’s list maintenance activities are opaque and, second, no one really knows how many people “should be” on the voting rolls and, therefore, how many people “should be” removed when list maintenance activities are done.

New York’s murky voter registration statistics

On the issue of statistical opacity  Every two years, the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission is required by the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) to issue a report about voter registration activities at the state level.  (Here is a link to the post-2014 report.)  To prepare the report, the EAC sends a survey to the states asking them to report, at the county level, statistics that describe the number of voters removed from the rolls, and why they were removed.  (The three major categories of removals are “failure to vote,” “moved from jurisdiction,” and “death.”)  In recent years, most states have complied with the request to provide this detailed information, but not New York.

As recently as 2008, New York only reported statistics for the whole state, not for individual counties.  In 2010 and 2012 New York finally started providing county-level statistics to the EAC, but the state backslid in 2014, providing no detailed breakdown for why voters were removed from any county in the state.  Not only that, but New York reported that between the 2012 and 2014 elections, only 47,634 voters had been removed from the rolls statewide, which is approximately the same number removed by Delaware.  (To provide further perspective, Florida removed over 484,000 voters and Pennsylvania removed over 853,000.)

Over the past few days, many people have asked me if the number of voters removed from the rolls in Brooklyn was unusual, to which I have to answer, “who knows?” because the relevant list maintenance statistics from New York (meaning the whole state, not just the city or one borough) are not being made public, as they are for most of the rest of the nation.

We don’t know how many people “should be” on the rolls

On the issue of how many people “should be” on the rolls and how many “should be” removed by list maintenance activities every year:  It turns out that this is a very hard question to answer. One attempt to answer this question was made in a recent conference paper that I wrote with a Harvard graduate student, Stephen Pettigrew.  (You can download the paper at this link.)  Because there is no national registry of all eligible adults (at least one that is available to the public) and no single national voter registration list, we don’t know the “true” number of registered voters.  (By “true number,” I mean people who are eligible to vote in the state in which they are registered, which excludes people on the rolls who have moved or died.)  Thus, official voter registration lists are, to some extent, “too big,” but by how much is currently unknown (and hotly contested among various groups).

Even so, it is possible to get an approximate sense of how many voters should be removed from the rolls on an annual basis, since there are two reasons that dominate all others:  moving out of a jurisdiction and dying.  Let’s see where Brooklyn (Kings County) stands on those measure.

WARNING:  Detailed calculations involving math follow

Deaths are easy.  The Centers for Disease Control maintain a database that records the number of deaths in each county of the United States, broken down by age.  In 2014 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), Kings County recorded 15,347 deaths among those 20 years and older.  (Unfortunately, the CDC database breaks down population groupings in five-year intervals, so we can’t add the deaths of 18- and 19-year-olds.  But, given the nature of death statistics, this is not a large number of people.)

Moving is a little more tricky, because there isn’t a national registry of movers, and the Census Bureau data is cumbersome to use to estimate how many people have moved out of a county or state.  However, the IRS (who knew?) provides data about county-to-county migration, based on income tax filings.  It can be used to estimate how many people move out of Kings County each year.

From what I can tell, between 2013 and 2014 (the most recent data available), about 110,000 people moved from Brooklyn — over 59,000 moving to other counties in New York and over 50,000 moving to other states.  Not all of these are registered voters, of course, or are all of them eligible.  The Census Bureau tells us that there were roughly 2.0 million residents in Brooklyn in 2014 who were 18 and older, out of the borough’s 2.6 million residents.  If all of these adults were registered, my back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that you would have about 60,000 registered voters from Brooklyn moving somewhere else in New York each year and about 51,000 registered voters moving out-of-state.  The out-of-state movers should certainly be removed from the rolls (eventually); the in-state movers would presumably be removed from the Kings County rolls eventually, but would reappear on the rolls of another county.

However, the most recent official reports from the state indicates that there are only between 1.3 and 1.4 million registered voters in Kings County, depending on which set of statistics you trust (last November or this April).  Either way, my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that with this more reasonable estimate of how many registered voters there actually are in Brooklyn, you probably have only about 39,000 registered voters moving within New York in any given year and 33,000 moving out-of-state.  And, if people who die are registered at the same rate as those who survive another year, that gives us only about 10,000 deaths that need to be taken care of each year.

This is a long way of saying that the only way you could get 125,000 voters removed from the rolls in a year (assuming that list maintenance happens annually) is if everyone eligible to vote is registered and if everyone who moves and dies is then taken off the rolls.  More likely, if only about 60% of eligible voters are registered in Brooklyn, then the expected number of removals would be in the range of 40,000 to 80,000 voters each year.

As a side note, in 2014, Kings County reported to the EAC that it removed only 4,548 voters from the rolls for all reasons between the 2012 and 2014 elections.  Thus, it is reasonable to infer that Brooklyn (and the rest of New York state) isn’t even removing voters who die, which should be the easiest part of the removal process to manage.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a medal, but you should also now have a sense about why the question of how many voters we should expect to be removed via regular list maintenance activities is so unclear.  It would help if New York’s counties started reporting the same detailed list maintenance statistics as the rest of the nation.  If they did, then at least we would have a better sense about the efforts being undertaken to keep the rolls reasonably free of deadwood.  Until then, no one outside the state board of elections and the county boards will be able to judge the efforts that are going into making sure the voter rolls in New York are accurate.

 

Making sure that California election officials are ready for the upcoming primary

California’s statewide primary is approaching rapidly, and it sounds as if voter interest in the primary is building. This could be an important test of the state’s top-two primary system, and it might the first time that we see strong voter turnout under the top-two. Clearly election officials throughout the state need to be prepared — there might be a lot of last-minute new registrants, a lot of ballots cast by mail, and perhaps many new voters showing up on election day. The LA Times editorialized about this exactly concern, “How do we prevent the California primary from becoming another Arizona?”.

Printing errors raise concerns about voter confusion in New York

The New York Times is reporting that there have been significant problems printing ballots in advance of New York’s upcoming primary elections. The article, “A $200,000 Ballot Error and Other Misprints at New York City’s Board of Elections”, reports that various incorrect mailings have been sent to voters, ranging from notices of upcoming elections with incorrect dates to errors in the printing of absentee ballots. How many lost votes these errors might generate in the state’s primary is difficult to estimate at this point, but once the primary elections are over and data is available it might be possible to determine whether these mistakes misled primary election voters.

Competing Lessons from the Utah Republican Caucus

If you want a case that illustrates the clash of expectations in the presidential nomination process, you need look no further than Utah’s Republican caucuses that have just been held.

These problems were well illustrated in two postings that recently came across my computer screen (h/t to Steve Hoersting via Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog).  I make no claims about the accuracy of the claims (especially in Post # 1), but the sentiments expressed are certain genuine and representative.

Post # 1, a very interesting (to say the least) description of one person’s experience at the caucus, is a classic clash-of-expectations account.  In this posting, we learn that the lines to check in were long, ballots were given out in an unsecured fashion, those running the event didn’t always seem to know what’s going on, one-person-one-vote may have been violated, the ballot wasn’t exactly secret, and those counting the ballots didn’t want too many people looking over their shoulders.  About which I think, “sounds like a caucus to me.”

Caucuses are a vestige of early 19th century America, intended to pick nominees, to be sure, but with other goals in mind as well, such as rewarding the party faithful with meaningful activity and instilling control over the party base.  What we moderns value about primaries — that they are run by professionals, are designed to minimize coercion, and value access and security simultaneously — is precisely what caucuses are not.  Primaries were not gifted to Americans by a benevolent God, but were fought for by reformers over many years.  Primaries have their problems (among which is the fact that primary laws also had the [intended] effect of killing off minor parties), but it is a mistake to judge caucuses as if they were primaries.

Post # 2 is a story in Wired about the Utah Republican Party’s use of an online elections vendor to run an absentee voting process for the caucuses over the Internet. The writer’s point of view is that online voting in an election is an outrage because of the well-known problems with security and auditability of voting over the Internet.  Fair enough.  But, this is not a secret ballot election, it is a caucus.  If there is outrage to be expressed along these lines, it is for Republican leaders lending the appearance of a secret ballot election to a different sort of proceeding.

The Wired story also uncovers frustration among many thousands (probably) of would-be Internet voters that they were unable to vote because their party registration could not be verified, which may be another way of saying they were not eligible to vote in the first place, and would have been turned away from a physical caucus if they had appeared there instead.  Thus, we have another mismatch of expectations, pitting party leaders, who have every right to guard the associational rights of the party organization, against party voters, whose affiliation with the parties is one of identity rather than organizational membership.

This presidential nomination season has been infinitely interesting, one that will go down in history.  As the process drags on, moving from the high-profile early states to the low-profile middle and later states, we are seeing more and more examples of inconsistent expectations between process organizers and voters.  I suspect this will lead to an interesting round of reform activity (The Republican Party Meets McGovern-Fraser anyone?) once the dust has settled in November.

 

Harbinger of things to come? Long lines in Arizona

This morning’s New York Times has a story, “Angry Arizona Voters Demand: Why Such Long Lines at Polling Sites?”

The answer seems simple, the problems seem to have arisen because of funding cuts, which led to a reduction in the number of polling places. For example, the story reports that in Maricopa County, “officials cut the number of polling places by 70 percent to save money — to 60 from 200 in the last presidential election. That translated to a single polling place for every 108,000 residents in Phoenix, a majority-minority city that had exceptional turnout in Tuesday’s Democratic and Republican primaries.”

While we are still a long way from November, it’s clear that in many of the caucuses and primaries so far there has been strong voter participation, and there is a lot of interest in the nomination campaigns. For some data and discussion of why turnout has been strong, especially in the Republican primaries so far, Lonna Atkeson just published this on presidential primary turnout over at Vox.

If this interest in the elections carry over to the fall, election officials should brace for a heavy turnout in the November general election.

President Obama at South By Southwest calls for better use of technology in election administration

Last week President Obama visited the South By Southwest event, and he got engaged in a pretty wide-ranging discussion about a lot of ways in which the federal government could do a better job using technology to engage citizens in government. You can watch the video, or read the transcript.

The part of the conversation that I thought was most interesting regarded some of his comments about technology and elections. Here’s an extended quotation of his comments, which I wanted to emphasize:

THE PRESIDENT: Exactly. I’ve give you a second example, and that is the issue of voting — I mentioned this earlier. We’re the only advanced democracy in the world that makes it harder for people to vote. (Laughter.) No, I hear laughing, but it’s sad. We take enormous pride in the fact that we are the world’s oldest continuous democracy, and yet we systematically put up barriers and make it as hard as possible for our citizens to vote. And it is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in a democracy, and that is for you to select who is going to represent you in government.

Now, I think it’s important for a group like this, as we come up to an election, regardless of your party affiliation, to think about how do we redesign our systems so that we don’t have 50 percent or 55 percent voter participation on presidential elections, and during off-year congressional elections, you’ve got 39 or 40 percent voting.

Q Mr. President, you’re in the state with the worst voter turnout in the country over the last few years.

THE PRESIDENT: By coincidence.

Q We would take 55 percent tomorrow if we could get it. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: There is a reason I’m bringing this up. (Laughter.) But it’s not just Texas. And so one of the things that we’re doing is engaging folks who are already doing interesting work in the online space, how can we create safe, secure, smart systems for people to be able to vote much easier online, and what are the technologies to help people get aware of what they’re voting about, who they’re voting for — that’s, again, an issue where you don’t want the federal government engineering all that. But what we can do is to have the incredible talent that’s represented in this auditorium really spend time thinking about that and getting to work on it.

This sounds interesting — it’s an excellent idea for the federal government to launch an initiative like this; a large-scale research effort to study “safe, secure, smart” systems for the administration of elections. I look forward to hearing more about this as the election season progresses, and I hope that the President makes good on his promise to “engage folks who are already doing interesting work” in this area. So as way of a shout-out to the President, the team at the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has been working on these issues since 2000, and we are ready to do more!

North Carolina becomes ground zero

There’s a story in this morning’s New York Times that discusses how North Carolina has become ground zero for the struggle over various important laws regulating elections — especially voter identification and redistricting. How those cases are decided will have important ramifications for similar questions in other states, and no doubt, will be part of the debate about election administration as we head into this fall’s presidential election.

Here’s the story, “North Carolina Exemplifies National Battles Over Voting Laws.”

Memories of elections past

This morning I read about a disputed election, for the student representative position on the Los Angeles Community College District board. It was written up in today’s Los Angeles Times, “After 2 contested elections, L.A. Community College District may finally have a tech fix.”

The basic issues with this election are that they are using paper ballots for the student trustee elections, and that they don’t seem to have any routine post-election auditing procedures to check the veracity of the hand-counting of the paper ballots. According to the story, “The fight may seem high schoolish, but it underscores a technology problem at the largest community college district in the nation. Instead of using machines to tally paper ballots, district officials counted them by hand. And instead of employing safeguards to make sure students voted only once, an audit revealed that up to six people voted twice.”

This just brought back memories of elections past, of paper ballots being counted by hand, and elections being conducted without strong post-election audit procedures. Regardless of whether the election is for the president of the United States, or for a student trustee to a local board, having strong administrative procedures can help insure that when elections are close and the results are disputed, there aren’t questions about the integrity of the election.

Presentations at the upcoming MPSA conference

Annually, political scientists gather at the Palmer House in Chicago for the spring Midwest Political Science Association conference. This year’s conference, April 7-10, has a number of panel sessions that readers might find of interest. This is not meant as a comprehensive list, but just what I’ve found so far for panels and discussions that look interesting to scholars who study election administration and voting technology.

VTP released new report on polling place resources

coverJust as the one-year count-down for the 2016 presidential election has begun, the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has released a new report today about managing polling place resources.  Click here for the executive summary, and here for the full report.

This report serves as a companion to a set of Web-based tools that the VTP developed and posted at the request of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), to facilitate the recommendation that local jurisdictions “develop models and tools to assist them in effectively allocating resources across polling places.”

The report takes several new steps in the effort to spread the word about the usefulness of applying queuing theory to improve polling place practices.  First, it provides a single source of facts about lines at polling places in 2012 (with some updating to 2014).  Second, it provides a brief, intuitive introduction to queuing theory as applied to polling places — with a brief list of suggested readings for those who would like to learn more.  Finally, the report uses data from two actual local election jurisdictions and walks through “what-if analyses” that rely on the application of the resource allocation tools.

The report released today provides basic facts about where long lines were experienced in 2012 and which voters — based on race, voting mode, and residence — waited longer than others.  Information about the 2014 election updates previous research, and underscores how long lines tend to be more prevalent in on-year (presidential) elections than in midterm elections.  Beyond providing basic facts about the location of lines in American elections, the report provides a basic introduction to the science of line management, queuing theory, and a list of further readings for those who wish to delve more deeply into the subject.  Finally, this report demonstrates how the Web-based tools might be used, by working through actual data from two local jurisdictions.

The report is part of the Polling Place of the Future Project (PPOTF) of the VTP, which has been generously supported by the Democracy Fund.  Since the release of the PCEA report, the VTP calculator website has been visited thousands of times by users across the country (and around the world.)  We have received feedback from numerous jurisdictions about the utility of these calculators, as state and local officials try to effectively allocate their limited resources.

In recent months, two of the resource calculators have been updated, and those updates have been posted on the site.  The new versions include improvements to the user interfaces and the ability to upload data from multiple precincts, which allows the simultaneous analysis of hundreds of polling places for large jurisdictions.

With the one-year countdown to Election Day 2016 already underway, some might say that it is too late to make use of such analytical tools to make a difference in the next presidential election.  However, my experience is that most election administrators are always looking for ways to improve the experience for voters; thus the publication of a report that highlights how existing tools might help them prepare for November 2016 comes at the right time for those election administrators who are looking to fine-tune their plans for next year.