Author Archives: Michael Alvarez

VTP report: The Voting Technology Project: Looking Back, Looking Ahead”

The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has recently released the first of a series of reports for the 2016 U.S. presidential election. This report, “The Voting Technology Project: Looking Back, Looking Ahead” outlines the history of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP), and discusses some of the issues and states where the VTP will be focusing their collective research activities for this fall’s election.

As this report discusses, the VTP was formed immediately after the 2000 presidential election. In particular, the project was established to study the problems associated with voting technologies in that election, and to propose solutions for those technological problems before the next presidential election in 2004. To assess the problems with voting technology in 2000, the VTP was constituted as a bicoastal, interdisciplinary research group.

While studying the issues with voting technology in the 2000 presidential election was our initial focus, the team quickly figured out that voting technologies were not the only issues plaguing U.S. elections: our studies revealed that significant numbers of votes were lost in the 2000 presidential election to problems other than bad voting technology. The non-technological issues that the VTP identified were voter registration, absentee voting, and problems with polling place practices.

The VTP issued our first major research studies in June and July 2001 — fifteen years ago! The first of those studies examined the reliability of existing voting technologies, using the residual votes metric; the second study took a broader focus, and used the lost votes measure to compare the problems of voting technology to those associated with other aspects of the election process in the U.S. Both of these 2001 studies were significant: they were widely read by policymakers, election officials, other academics, and the interested public. These studies played important roles in the development of federal, state, and local election reform efforts after 2001, including the Help America Vote Act. These studies also laid the foundation for the development of a surge of interest in the study of election administration and voting technology by academics, which fifteen years later has grown to include researchers across the globe, who jointly have produced many important books and articles on voter registration, voter identification, absentee voting, voting technology, polling place practices, and election administration.

Fifteen years later, the VTP continues to carry out ambitious and important research on voting technology and election administration. As a project, we have released a number of important policy reports since 2001, we have published our research widely, we have helped election officials and policymakers across the globe improve their voting technology and election administration practices, we have trained many students in the science of elections, and we have collaborated widely with researchers at many other colleges and universities.

As this new report discusses, going into the 2016 November general elections in the U.S., the VTP will be focusing on many of the same issues which have received our attention in the past (ironically, in some of the same states where we have focused our studies in past elections). Our efforts will involve the study of how to improve polling place practices, in particular the elimination of long lines at polling places on Election Day. We will continue our studies of voter identification and authentication procedures, and how new technologies might allow for accurate identification without disenfranchisement. The VTP will be looking closely at the performance of old and new voting technologies that will be used this fall. Finally, we will also be studying voting-by-mail and early voting in the states which widely use those convenience voting options. We’ll provide additional reports about those studies as the election season progresses, and issue post-election evaluations when we have results to share with our colleagues and readers.

The 2000 presidential election was unique, and the combination of problematic voting technologies with a very close election focused the attention of the world on how American elections are conducted. The good news is that much has improved in the conduct of federal elections in the U.S. since 2000, and the research community now has metrics and methods to study election performance well.

However, in battleground states, where the presidential election will be fought, it’s likely that attention will again focus on administrative and technological issues in November 2016, especially if none of the presidential candidates can easily claim an Electoral College victory the evening of November 8, 2016. We hope that the release of this report, and the others that we will published between now and Election Day, will help minimize the number of votes that are lost in the electoral process.

Media exit polls, election analytics, and conspiracy theories

The integrity of elections is a primary concern in a democratic society. One of the most important developments in the study of elections in recent decades has been the rapid development of tools and methods for evaluation of elections, most specifically, what many call “election forensics.” I and a number of my colleagues have written extensively on election evaluation and forensics; I refer interested readers to the book that Lonna Atkeson, Thad Hall, and I wrote, Evaluating Elections, and to the book that I edited with Thad and Susan Hyde, Election Fraud.

One question that continues to arise concerns whether observed differences between election results and media exit polls is evidence of electoral manipulation or election fraud. These questions have been raised in a number of recent U.S. presidential elections, and have come up again in the recent presidential primary elections in the U.S. In a recent piece in the New York Times, Nate Cohn wrote about these claims, and why we should be cautious in the use of media exit polls to detect election fraud. Each of the points that Cohn makes is valid and important, so this is an article worth reading closely.

I’d add to Cohn’s arguments, and note that while media exit polls have clear weaknesses as the sole forensic tool for determining the integrity of an election, we have a wide variety of other tools and methods to use in situations where there are questions raised about an election.
As Lonna, Thad and I wrote in Evaluating Elections, a good post-election study of an election’s integrity should involve a variety of data sources and multiple methods: including surveys and polls, post-election audits, and forensic analysis of disaggregated election returns. Each analytic approach has it’s strengths and weaknesses (media exit polls included), so by approaching the study of election integrity using as many data sources and different methods as we can, we can best locate where we might want to launch further investigation of potential problems in an election.

I have no doubt that we will hear more about the use of exit polls to evaluate the integrity of the presidential election this fall. Keep in mind Cohn’s cautionary points about using exit polls for this purpose, and also keep in mind that there are many other ways to evaluate the integrity of an election that have been tested and used in past elections. Media exit polls aren’t a great forensic tool, as Cohn argues: the types of exit polls that the news media uses to make inferences about voting behavior are not designed to detect election fraud or manipulation. Rather, those interested in a detailed examination of an election’s integrity should instead use the full array of analytic forensic tools that have been developed and tested in the research literature.

California’s 2016 Primary Election: Lessons Learned?

I headed to my local polling place this morning at about 8am, which this election was in our neighborhood firestation. I have to confess, I had quite feeling of deja vu this morning, having again experienced and seen many of the same things that I’ve seen in the hundreds of polling places I’ve visited in my time associated with the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (since the 2000 presidential election).

First, good and bad news. The good news is that my polling place was busy this morning; the bad news was that meant that parking wasn’t straightforward (I had to circle the block to find street parking, a typical problem regarding polling places in densely-populated urban areas). I also had to wait a bit, it took me about 3-4 minutes to check in an to then get my ballot, and then I had to wait for just over 5 minutes to be able to use a ballot booth with an Inkavote device (I’m an LA County voter). Part of my wait time, of course, arose because one voter cut in front of the folks waiting in line (which generated some irritation).

But based on what I saw this morning, I’m betting that turnout in today’s California primary election will be higher than seen in recent statewide primary elections.

Second, there was again the same confusion we’ve seen in polling places in previous elections regarding the rules of the top-two primary, which admittedly are complex. Some non-party-preference voters don’t understand that they can request the party ballot for only some parties, and at least one person who seemed to be a registered Green party voter was vocal in their irritation at not being able to vote for Sanders. There was also confusion in the minds of some voters about which ballot booths to use, because they needed to use a specific vote recorder (and thus a specific party booth) in this election.

Third, one of the two Inkavote ballot scanners seemed to be having some problems; when I arrived, there was some sort of commotion regarding one of the two ballot scanners, with three poll workers trying to figure out why a voter was having some sort of problem scanning their ballot. Whether that was resolved or not was hard for me to tell, as it wasn’t the scanner associated with my voting precinct.

Fourth, as I had written about earlier, the ballot for the U.S. Senate race was confusing. The ballot had a warning page about the ballot design, and while I think that it was about as well laid out as possible for the InkaVote system, it was confusing. I’m hypothesizing that once the election is over and we have data to study, we are likely to see a higher-than-expected residual vote (caused by overvoting) with respect to this race.

So a mixed evaluation. Clearly, since 2000 academics and election officials have learned a lot about how to study and conduct elections. But it’s also somewhat frustrating to see the same issues cropping up again, with not terribly accessible polling locations, lines, voter confusion about the rules of the election, potential problems with ballot designs, and seemingly glitchy voting technologies. In general, it all seemed a bit more chaotic than necessary. Hopefully between now and November many of these issues will be mitigated or eliminated, as it’s looking like a contested and controversial general election is heading our way.

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.”

computational-social-science-615x290

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.

sample-ballot_Page_1

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.

sample-ballot_Page_2

sample-ballot_Page_3

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.”