Author Archives: Michael Alvarez

Computational Social Science and Election Administration

I recently edited a volume for Cambridge University Press, Computational Social Science: Discovery and Prediction. A summary of the book, and some ideas about new directions for this evolving field, is in a blog post that was just published on the CUP’s blog (fifteeneightyfour), “Computational Social Sciences: Advances and Innovation in Research Methods.”


There’s a lot in this book that will be of interest to readers of this blog. Contributions include essays by Ines Levin, Julia Pomares and I on using machine learning techniques to detect election fraud; papers on how to use big data tools to improve government policymaking (Price and Gelman, and Griepentrog et al.); and chapters on a variety of new tools for analyzing text data, networks, and high-dimensional data.

Here we go again? Ballot design and the June California primary

Political observers will remember the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, where 135 candidates ran in the election to replace Governor Davis. Rod Kiewiet and I wrote about how this complex election produced difficult decision problems for voters, and in a different paper (with Goodrich, Kiewiet, Hall and Sled) I also wrote about how the complexity of the recall election posed administrative problems for election officials.

The upcoming June primary in California is shaping up as one where again we have a complicated race, though this time it is for the U.S. Senate. In the primary for the U.S. Senate there are 34 candidates competing to win the primary, and to move on to the general election in November. There have been a few preliminary reports in the media about how the crowded ballot might be problematic for voters when they try to find their candidates in the primary election.

So I took a look at the sample Democratic ballot for Los Angeles County, which is reproduced below. The first page is designed to tell voters that the ballot for the U.S. Senate will have two pages, and it reproduces each page.


The next two pages show what the ballot will look like in L.A. County; in this example, there are 19 candidates listed on the first page, and 15 candidates listed on the second page. The way this ballot is laid out, voters would need to look for their candidate on the first page, and then if they don’t find their candidate listed there, flip to the second page to find their preferred candidate.



This is just an example from L.A. County, which uses a unique voting system (“InkaVote”). While the sample ballot provides ample warnings to voters to only vote for one candidate, and to check both pages for their candidate of choice, there’s a good chance that we’ll see voters make mistakes. In particular, we may see a increased risk of overvotes for the U.S. Senate race, as some voters may not understand that they are only supposed to vote for one candidate (or not see the warnings) and instead may believe they are supposed to make a mark for a candidate on each page. We may also see voters get confused and just skip this race, which might result in an increased rate of undervoting in this election.

As other counties are using different ballot designs and layouts for this race, this is just an example of what might happen in L.A. County. Given the complexity of this ballot and election, there’s a good chance that we might see increased rates of both undervoting and overvoting across the state this June, though the exact causes for that will depend on the specifics of ballot design and layout in each county.

Whether these designs and layouts lead to systematic voter errors of the sort seen in 2000 is not clear at this point, as I’ve not had a chance yet to look at sample ballots from many of the larger counties in the state. However, we do know from research published about the infamous “butterfly ballot” used in Palm Beach County in the 2000 presidential election, even a relatively small number of voter mistakes can be influential in a close election (see the paper by Wand et al. on the butterfly ballot). If the U.S. Senate primary is close in June, we could see some scrutiny of ballot design and layout, and whether problems with design and layout may have led to voter error.

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.

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.

Vote buying allegations in Argentina

There was an article in this morning’s New York Times on allegations of vote buying in Argentina. The story recounted a number of stories of possible vote buying schemes, in particular in Tucuman.

This brought to mind the fact that social scientists (including my colleague Julia Pomares who is quoted in the NY Times story, who I have written a number of papers with regarding election integrity and the use of voting technologies to increase voter confidence) have written extensively in recent years on the topic of election fraud, in particular focusing on the development of tool that can be used to detect potential fraud in elections data.

Much of the earlier work on election forensics is presented in the book that I edited with Thad Hall and Susan Hyde, “Election Fraud: Detecting and Deterring Electoral Manipulation.” More recently, Ines Levin and I co-edited a Political Analysis virtual issue that summarized a number of papers that have been published in that journal about this topic, “Election Fraud and Electoral Integrity.” The current issue of Political Analysis has two new papers in it on election forensics, by Montgomery, Olivella, Potter and Crisp, and another by Medzihorsky.

A number of colleagues who follow Argentine elections, and those who study election fraud and integrity, will be following the current elections closely. There’s no doubt that the tools and techniques that social scientists have developed in recent years will be applied to the current elections in Argentina, and elections throughout the world in coming years, to help improve our understanding of elections and their integrity.