Learning from Virginia about Voter List Maintenance

The Commonwealth of Virginia has been on my mind recently as I have been thinking about voter registration list maintenance. (I know, I have a troubled mind.) Virginia has a very thorough and well-documented “list hygiene” program — which results in an annual report that anyone interested in the topic should read. (Here’s a link to the past four reports.)

Edgargo Cortes, who is the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, graciously invited me to share the podium with him today, as he led a training session on list maintenance at the annual Virginia Elections Conference.  Edgardo’s remarks were centered around explaining the following chart, which illustrates the various data sets that come together on the regular basis — ranging from yearly to monthly — as his team tries to ensure that eligible voters, and only eligible voters, are on the Commonwealth’s voting rolls. (Click on the graphic for a slightly larger view.)

Here are some thoughts that initially occurred to me as I listened to Edgardo talk, and as I’ve spent the day talking with him and his staff:

  1. The amount of external data brought in to match against the voter file is stunning. To suggest that a state like Virginia isn’t putting a lot of effort into trying to keep the list current is just nuts.
  2. ERIC (the Election Registration Information Center) has been indispensable for improving the ability of Virginia to find voters who have moved away, and to make sure their voter registration is held in only one place.  Indeed there is evidence (some of which I presented in my remarks) that Virginia has been able to use ERIC to catch up from prior years when a lot of these (former) voters would have remained on the list as deadwood for years.
  3. Database matching is harder than you think.  When I got into this business, there was a common assumption that voter registration lists were the orphan child of government agency record keeping, and that larger agencies (especially DMVs) had crisp and clean lists.  Not true.  Turns out that most government agencies that interact with citizens really don’t need to know precisely where they live.  As a consequence, some data sources are less helpful than you’d think, and in almost all cases, data records don’t easily match-up.
  4. Citizenship matching is a quagmire.  The DHS SAVE (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program) database has been touted as the savior for keeping non-citizens off of voter rolls, but it turns out that if you have the information you need to search for someone on the SAVE service, you already know they are unlikely to be a citizen.  Furthermore, resident aliens transition so regularly into citizenship status that voters tagged as non-citizens almost always end up being citizens after all — a fact discovered only after painstaking auditing of citizenship information.  The quality of the data on citizenship seems ready-made for an endless stream of false-positive matches.

Virginia is a state that takes the accuracy of its voting rolls very seriously.  Check out their reports — or at least study the chart.

Graphic of the week # 2: Preparing for GA06

As I get ready to analyze the results of the upcoming runoff in GA06, I asked my research associate, Jacob Coblentz, to produce a graph to summarize how the precinct returns from the April primary compared to the November presidential returns.  Below is the result.


The y-axis is the percentage of the two-party vote received by all the Republican candidates in the primary and the x-axis is the percentage of the two-party vote received by Trump.  The solid line is the 45-degree line.

In the 2016 general election, 50.3% of the two-party vote in the district went to Trump.  In the primary, 50.9% of the two-party vote went to one of the Republican candidates.  To play Captain Obvious here, no wonder this is a nail-biter, and no wonder an Ossoff victory would be quite an accomplishment.  A deeper dive into the data shows that primary turnout sagged more in the precincts that showed the strongest support for Clinton in November, compared to the sag in precincts that supported Trump the most.  Thus, it’s also no surprise that this has become a contest of turnout.


Local Election Official Survey in the Field

With the help of Sentis Research, I have placed into the field a survey of local election officials to follow-up on a very similar survey that I helped produce in 2013, in order to help the Presidential Commission on Election Administration understand the challenges facing local jurisdictions.

You can review the testimony my colleagues and I provided to the PCEA about the 2013 survey at meetings on September 20, 2013 and  December 3, 2013.

The specific purpose of the current survey is to see how things have changed at the local level for two very important issues in the PCEA report: wait times at the polls and the purchase of voting technology.  Public opinion research of voters suggests that wait times diminished substantially in 2016, compared to 2012, and the local election official survey will help to provide context to why wait times dropped.  The PCEA report also identified the problem of aging voting technology as a “looming technology crisis.”  The LEO survey will help us to gauge how much it remains a looming problem.

With concerns over email phishing attacks, some local officials have contacted me to see if the invitation to participate in the survey is legitimate.  I don’t blame them.  If any election official is concerned about the authenticity of the e-mail they received about this survey, here are some things to look for in the message:

  • You will notice that my contact information is located on the e-mail solicitation.
  • The invitation will be sent to you from the following e-mail address:  MIT@sentis.ca.  It will include “Election Administration Survey” in the subject line.
  • The invitation will include a link that will take you to an online survey hosted at https://mit-survey.sentis.ca. (Each link is customized for every individual who was invited to participate, so don’t visit the simple link given in the previous sentence.)

One final thing:  answers to the survey will be held in confidence.  We will not be releasing or saving any information about individual respondents.   We will only be releasing an aggregate report about the responses.

I appreciate the responses we have received thus far.  This is an important opportunity for local officials to report on how things have gone in the four years since 2012, and to help us gauge the challenges and successes experienced by local election jurisdictions in 2016.

Graphic of the week # 1: Polarization in state voter confidence

Beginning today, I hope to post a weekly graphic that I have produced, or that has been produced by one of the team members of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, that provides some new or interesting insight into how elections are run in the United States.

This week, the subject is voter confidence.  This is a big topic.  Lots of people make claims about voter confidence, particularly what causes it to go up or down, oftentimes tying these claims to support for some type of election reform.

In fact, the literature on voter confidence suggests that very little in the way of election reform can move voter confidence.  What does move it is the election results.  If your guy wins, you’re more confident than if your guy loses.

I came across a nice example of this as I was preparing for some talks at upcoming summer election conferences.  The underlying measure of voter confidence is the percentage of respondents to the Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE) who stated they were “very confident” that votes were counted accurately in their state in 2016.  I separated those responses by the party of the respondent and then took the difference.  Positive amounts mean that Republicans were more confident that votes were counted accurately in their state, negative amounts mean that Democrats were more confident.

Below you see the results.  With only three exceptions (Maine, Michigan, and Pennsylvania), the more-confident partisans in a state match the party of the presidential candidate who won the state.


On average, there is a 34-point net jump associated simply with living in a state won by Trump compared to being a state won by Clinton.

There are some states with less polarization than we would expect (Wyoming, West Virginia, and Hawaii) and some with more (Alabama, Washington).  Understanding why this is will have to wait for another day.

Initial thoughts on the “Pence Commission”

President Trump has just issued the executive order announcing the creation of his “voting fraud” commission to be chaired by Vice President Pence.  Here are my own initial thoughts.

1. Title.  This will be the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.  Election integrity is the principal dimension over which Democrats and Republicans differ when they think about the main problems of election policy, both at the mass and elite levels.  For instance, in my own module of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, I asked respondents to place themselves on a five-point continuum, based on which of the following statements was closest to their own opinion:  (1) It is important to make voting as easy as possible, even if there are some security risks, vs. (2) It is important to make voting as secure as possible, even if voting is not easy.  Here is how partisans distributed themselves among these answers:

This pattern recurs on virtually all questions on this survey — and others like it — that touch on security vs. access.  Bottom line:  This is a commission focused on problems that Republicans will resonate with and Democrats won’t.  Unlike the last presidential commission on election issues, the Bauer-Ginsberg PCEA, the Pence Commission seems like a body that will primarily reinforce partisan lines and gridlock on hot-button election issues.

2. Voter confidence. The executive order starts by charging the commission with identifying “those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies, and practices that enhance the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting process used in Federal elections.”  If the commission focuses on the scholarly research on this item, it will discover two overwhelming findings:  (1) voter confidence is driven most powerfully by who wins and loses and (2) election laws such as voter identification don’t affect the confidence that the mass public has in the electoral process.  In other words, when your party’s candidate wins the election, you become more confident of the process than when your party’s candidate loses.  In 2012, for instance, 52% of Republicans were very confident their votes were counted as cast, according to responses to the Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE).  In 2016, that percentage rose to 71%.  On the flip side, the percentage of Democrats who were very confident fell from 76% to 72%.  There is no election reform that has been shown to produce such swings in voter confidence as this.

3.  Focusing on rare problems vs. common problems.  One of the greatest barriers to advancing the cause of evidence-based election reform is how the field regularly gets side-tracked by issues that are serious on their face, but for which there is little-to-no evidence that they are encountered by millions of voters.  I’m thinking here about the belief that George W. Bush won in 2004 only because thousands of votes were stolen for him by electronic machines in Ohio, or that Donald Trump would have won the popular vote in 2016 if only millions of fraudulent votes hadn’t been cast.  At the same time, state and local election officials struggle to get state legislatures and county commissioners to focus their attention on keeping voting machines up-to-date or modernizing voter registration systems.  These latter problems have had demonstrable effects in the past, and election administration continues to struggle with them today.

4. The lost opportunity.  Most people who work in the field of election administration, academics and practitioners, know that the voter registration system is less than perfect and needs help.  Democrats and Republicans alike have worked in recent years to address the vulnerabilities in this system.  In some cases, they have come together to embrace programs like ERIC (the Electronic Registration Information Center) , in order to improve list maintenance.  In other cases, they have supported online voter registration, which holds the promise of improving the accuracy of voter lists.  The existence of a commission with a partisan framing will create barriers for non-partisan and dispassionate work in this area to proceed — not because it will necessarily politicize those already doing the hard, tedious work in this area, but because they (we) will yet again have to swat back unfounded rumors, leaving less time for the work that actually needs to get done.


Democrats were more likely to vote early in 2016 than Republicans. That’s not new.

By now, I would hope that the idea that early voting patterns reliably predict the eventual outcomes of an election would have died a dignified death. Last week, Philip Bump provided some useful analysis into the tendency of the two parties to vote early in presidential elections.

Bump’s analysis was a useful start, but because it was ultimately based on election returns from the six states that broke out results by mode of voting in 2016 (Election Day, early, and absentee/mail), it is of limited generalizability.

One way of answering the question, “do Democrats rely more on early voting than Republicans” is to look to public opinion surveys.  Luckily, there are now two academic studies with sufficient observations for each state that we can look at the question for each of the fifty states.

Those two studies are the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) and the Survey of the Performance of American Elections.  The CCES draws a representative sample from across the country.  In 2016, the CCES had 64,600 respondents, ranging from 99 in Wyoming to over 6,000 in California.  The SPAE draws representative samples from each state — 200 from each state plus DC, for 10,200 overall.  Both surveys are conducted by YouGov using similar questions.  By adding the SPAE results to the CCES sample, we boost the number of observations available from the smaller states.

Early voting by Democrats and Republicans in 2016

Early voting by Democrats and Republicans in 2016

The accompanying graph plots the percentage of Democratic respondents in each state who reported voting early (and in person) against the percentage of Republicans who reported the same.  (Only states in which more than 10% of voters reported voting early are included in the graph.) Note that in virtually every state, Democrats were more likely to vote early than Republicans.  Louisiana and Arkansas were the notable exceptions.

So, using a broader data set, Bump’s analysis is confirmed.

Furthermore, it is possible to expand the analysis back to 2008 and 2012, which is done in the following two graphs. Note that Democrats were also much more likely to use early voting in 2008 in most states (Arkansas is against an exception), but not in 2012.

Early voting in 2008

Early voting in 2008

Early voting in 2012

Early voting in 2012

Some general points to end:

  1. It does appear that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to vote early in 2016.  This was also true in 2008 but not in 2012.
  2. Estimating which party relies more heavily on early voting (or absentee/mail voting, for that matter) is just that, an estimate.  Other surveys and other attempts to use administrative records might come up with different results.  I’d be curious to see what those other results are.
  3. Presidential elections are different from other elections.  Even if Democrats were more likely to vote early in 2016, there is no reason this has to persist for other types of elections, such as local elections or midterm elections.  (Other analysis I’ve performed, for instance, shows that the fraction of voters relying on early voting fluctuates from election-to-election much more than the fraction of voters using absentee ballots.)
  4. Even if it turns out that Democrats are more likely to use election voting than Republicans, it is still the case that a lot of Republicans vote early in the states that allow it.

Georgia’s 6th CD is in reach for the Democrats, but Republicans have a buffer that’s easily discounted

The nation’s electoral attention has turned to the 6th congressional district of Georgia, where the scramble is on to replace Tom Price, the Republican who left to join the Trump Administration.  Press accounts focus on the possibility the seat will flip to the Democratic column, in light of last week’s squeaker in the Kansas by-election and in light of the strong showing of Democrat Jon Ossoff in the 6th CD contest.

A quick look at the numbers from 2016 show why Democratic hopes are so high today.  Just look at the election returns from the general election last November,  Although Price won his district with 60.6% of the vote, Trump carried Price’s district with only 47.7% to Clinton’s 47.5% of the vote.  However, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson received the remaining 4.9%, which was slightly above his 3.1% total in the state as a whole.

Prognosticators ignore the Johnson vote at their peril.  Leaving them out of the equation makes the district appear to be a 50/50 tossup that might very well go to a high-energy Democratic upstart.  Including them as natural Republican voters in the special election makes the district more in the +5 “leans Republican” category.

A week ago, Democrats managed to increase their vote share in the Kansas 8th CD by 8 points over the November election.  If the same holds true in the Georgia 6th, the district will flip, even accounting for the Libertarian vote in the district.  And yet, I’m not discounting the Johnson vote when push comes to shove, should a run off occur.

Pre-registration of 16 and 17 year olds in California

California has recently launched a program, which allows eligible 16 and 17 year old in California to pre-register to vote. When they turn 18, their registration becomes active. Here’s more information from the CA Secretary of State’s website.

It’s going to be quite interesting in 2018 and 2020 to evaluate how this initiative works. Will those who pre-register be more likely to turnout to vote than those who do not (obviously, controlling for all of the factors that might lead 18 year olds to register and vote)? Who uses this program, and does it have any consequences for how organizations and campaigns conduct voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote activities? Lots of interesting questions here for future study!

New research on election forensics

Election forensics is a hot topic for research these days, and recently Arturas Rozenas from NYU published an interesting new paper at Political Analysis (the journal I co-edit). His paper, “Detecting Election Fraud from Irregularities in Vote-Shares” should be of interest to folks studying election integrity and election fraud. Here’s the abstract:

I develop a novel method to detect election fraud from irregular patterns in the distribution of vote-shares. I build on a widely discussed observation that in some elections where fraud allegations abound, suspiciously many polling stations return coarse vote-shares (e.g., 0.50, 0.60, 0.75) for the ruling party, which seems highly implausible in large electorates. Using analytical results and simulations, I show that sheer frequency of such coarse vote-shares is entirely plausible due to simple numeric laws and does not by itself constitute evidence of fraud. To avoid false positive errors in fraud detection, I propose a resampled kernel density method (RKD) to measure whether the coarse vote-shares occur too frequently to raise a statistically qualified suspicion of fraud. I illustrate the method on election data from Russia and Canada as well as simulated data. A software package is provided for an easy implementation of the method.

And since Political Analysis requires that authors provide code and data to replicate the work reported in their paper, here’s the replication materials from Arturas.

Summer 2017 Conference on Election Sciences, Reform, and Administration

My friend Paul Gronke has just issued the call for this year’s summer conference on Election Sciences, Reform, and Administration. Below I’ve cut-and-pasted the full call from Paul. Please consider attending, or even proposing a paper.

[Update:  A fuller version of the call is now up on the EVIC website.]

Dear Colleagues,

Please find attached a call for papers for a 2017 Summer Conference on Election Sciences to be jointly hosted by Reed College and Portland State University from July 26-272, 27-28, 2017.  We currently plan for a conference of approximately 1 1/2 days, but may be able to extend the conference, and provide additional support, pending funding applications. We do have funding in place from Reed College’s McKinley Fund and MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab to fully support first authors.

Lonna Atkeson of the University of New Mexico and Bernard Fraga of Indiana University have graciously agreed to serve as program chairs.

I have included a brief description here; the longer description is in the attached PDF. [Ed note:  not attached]

Paper proposals are being invited for a Summer Conference on Election Science, Reform, and Administration, hosted by Reed College and Portland State University, and co-sponsored by the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College and the Election Data and Science Lab at MIT. The conference will be held in Portland, OR from July 26-27, 2017.

The goals of the conference are, first, to provide a forum for scholars in political science, public administration, law, computer science, statistics, and other fields who are working to develop rigorous empirical approaches to the study of how laws and administrative procedures affect the quality of elections in the United States; and, second, to build scientific capacity by identifying major questions in the field, fostering collaboration, and connecting senior and junior scholars.

Airfare, lodging, and conference meals will be covered for paper presenters and discussants. Other scholars are welcome to attend if they can cover conference costs (details to be announced within a month).

Lonna Atkeson, University of New Mexico, and Bernard Fraga, Indiana University, will serve as program co-chairs, and Paul Gronke, Reed College and Phil Keisling, Center for Public Service at PSU, will act as conference organizers and hosts.

Paper proposals of no more than 250 words should be submitted by April 15, 2017.  Submit proposals at http://bit.ly/PDXelection – we expect to announce decisions by May 1.  Any questions can be sent to atkeson@umn.edu, bfraga@indiana.edu, or gronke@reed.edu.