Category Archives: election administration

California’s massive 2016 voter guide

I’m glad that I recently had a large and sturdy mailbox installed at the end of our driveway. Our previous mailbox was small, rusty, and was starting to lean to one side — had the mail carrier tried to leave California’s massive, 224-page, 2016 general election voter information guide in our old mailbox, I have no doubt it would have immediately toppled over.

The LA Times has a fun video that shows the printing of this super-sized voter information guide:

Don’t get me wrong, I think that it’s great that California voters receive the voter information guide from our Secretary of State (it’s available online in pdf format as well, which might be more easily usable for many voters). The information guide helps remind voters about the upcoming election, it provides useful information about voter rights and resources about registration and voting, and it also gives lots and lots of detailed information about all of the ballot measures that we will have on our ballots in California this fall.

But with seventeen statewide measures on the ballot (this does not include county or local measures), the information guide is a bit intimidating this election season. Californians are being asked to provide their input into a wide range of statewide issues, including fiscal matters like school and revenue bonds, tax extensions and new taxes, the death penalty, and marijuana legalization. These are important issues, and this fall voters will need to take a close look at the voter information guide to get a better understanding of these issues and to figure out how to cast their ballots.

With so many issues on the ballot, and with a lot of important candidate races (a presidential race, the U.S. Senate contest, and lots of competitive congressional and state legislative races), it’s a long ballot. Combine the long ballot with a lot of interest in this election, there’s a good chance we will see strong turnout through the state this fall, which even with widespread voting by mail will likely mean long waits at polling places on election day.

In any case, Californians should be on the lookout for their massive voter information guide in their mailboxes, or take a look at the online version. Just make sure that you have a sturdy mailbox, and don’t drop it on your toes when your copy arrives soon.

Estimating Turnout with Self-Reported Survey Data

There’s long been a debate about the accuracy of voter participation estimates that use self-reported survey data. The seminal research paper on this topic, by Rosenstone and Wolfinger, was published in 1978 (available here for those of you with JSTOR access). They pointed out a methodological problem in the Current Population Survey data they used in their early and important analysis: there seemed to be more people in the survey reporting that they voted, than likely voted in the federal elections they studied.

In the years since the publication of Rosenstone and Wolfinger’s paper, there’s been a lot of debate among academic researchers about this apparent misreporting of turnout in survey self-reports of behavior, much more than I can easily summarize here. But many survey researchers have been using “voter validation” to try to alleviate these potential biases in their survey data, which involves matching survey respondents who say they voted to administrative voter history record (after the election); this approach has been used in many large-scale academic surveys of political behavior, including many of the American National Election Studies.

In an important new study, recently published in Public Opinion Quarterly, Berent, Krosnick and Lupia, set out to test the validation of self-reports of turnout against post-election voter history data. Their paper, “Measuring Voter Registration and Turnout in Surveys: Do Official Government Records Yield More Accurate Assessments”, is one that people interested in studying voter turnout using survey data should read. Here’s the important results from their paper’s abstract:

We explore the viability of turnout validation efforts. We find that several apparently viable methods of matching survey respondents to government records severely underestimate the proportion of Americans who were registered to vote. Matching errors that severely underestimate registration rates also drive down “validated” turnout estimates. As a result, when “validated” turnout estimates appear to be more accurate than self-reports because they produce lower turnout estimates, the apparent accuracy is likely an illusion. Also, among respondents whose self-reports can be validated against government records, the accuracy of self-reports is extremely high. This would not occur if lying was the primary explanation for differences between reported and official turnout rates.

This is an important paper, which deserves close attention. As it is questioning one of the common means of trying to validate self-reported turnout, not only do we need additional research to confirm their results, we need new research to better understand how we can best adjust self-reported survey participation to get the most accurate turnout estimate that we can, using survey data.

Estimating racial and ethnic identity from voting history data

Researchers who have participated in redistricting efforts, or who for other reasons have used voter history files in their work, know how difficult it is to estimate a voter’s racial and ethnic identity from these data. These files typically contain a voter’s name, date of birth, address, date of registration, and their participation in recent elections. The usual approach that many have take to estimate each voter’s racial or ethnic identity has been to use “surname dictionaries” which will classify many of the last names in a voter history file to many racial or ethnic groups.

The obvious problem is that with an increasingly diverse society, this surname matching procedure may be less and less accurate. The surnames of many Americans are no longer necessarily accurate for estimating racial or ethnic identity.

Charles recently wrote about one recent paper in Political Analysis on this topic, by Kosuke Imai and Kabir Khanna, “Improving Ecological Inference by Predicting Individual Ethnicity from Voter Registration Records”. Charles provided an excellent summary of this article, but I’d like to point out to readers that the Imai and Khanna article is now available for free reading online, so check it out asap!

The the other recent article in Political Analysis on this question is by J. Andrew Harris, “What’s in a Name? A Method for Extracting Information about Ethnicity from Names.” Here’s Harris’s abstract:

Questions about racial or ethnic group identity feature centrally in many social science theories, but detailed data on ethnic composition are often difficult to obtain, out of date, or otherwise unavailable. The proliferation of publicly available geocoded person names provides one potential source of such data—if researchers can effectively link names and group identity. This article examines that linkage and presents a methodology for estimating local ethnic or racial composition using the relationship between group membership and person names. Common approaches for linking names and identity groups perform poorly when estimating group proportions. I have developed a new method for estimating racial or ethnic composition from names which requires no classification of individual names. This method provides more accurate estimates than the standard approach and works in any context where person names contain information about group membership. Illustrations from two very different contexts are provided: the United States and the Republic of Kenya.

Harris’s paper is open access, which means it’s also freely available for people to read online.

There’s a lot of interesting research going on in how to use these types of administrative datasets for innovative research; I encourage readers to take a look at both papers, and I’d also like to note that the code and data for both papers are available on the Political Analysis Dataverse.

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?”.

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!

PCEA research white papers

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s report is getting a lot of attention and praise following its release on Wednesday. One aspect of the report I want to highlight is the degree to which the Commission aimed to ground their findings in the best available research, academic and otherwise.  It renews my faith that it may be possible to build a field of election administration that is more technocratic than it currently is.

The report’s appendix, available through the web site, is a valuable resource on the available research about each aspect of the commission’s charge.

I want to lift up an important subset of that appendix, which is a collection of white papers written by a collection of scholars, drawn from a variety of fields and perspectives, that summarized the large literatures that were relevant to the commission’s work.  A collection of those papers has been assembled in one place, on the VTP web site, so that others might have easy access to them.  Here are the authors and subjects:

Much of this research effort was assisted by the Democracy Fund, though of course, the research is all the work and opinions of the authors. Speaking personally, I greatly appreciate the support and encouragement of the Fund through these past few months.

NM Secretary of State sends Letter to Greens, Constitutional, and Independent Party Disqualifying Party

About 6 weeks ago now, I got a call from two different Green voters asking me if they were still eligible to vote because of a letter that they received from New Mexico Secretary of State Diana Duran. The letter was dated November 5, 2013 and said,

          RE: Disqualification of NM Green Party

Dear Green Party registered voter:

In the 2012 General Election, the Green Party’s candidate for president of the United States did not receive the required percentage required     by  law for the Green Party to remain an active political party in New Mexico.

The Secretary of State’s office is required by law to notify all registered Green party voters that the party is no longer a qualified political party.

To re-qualify, the Green party would be required to submit petition signatures and comply with the requirements under the Election Code for political parties.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact our office.

Best regards,

Bobbi Shearer
Director, Bureau of Elections

Of course, Green voters were not deregistered or disqualified, although their party was, but the letter was a bit ambiguous, especially given the fact that a high profile anti-abortion city initiative was on the ballot in the city of Albuquerque on November 19 and early voting had already begun. I called the Green Party and they indicated to me that they received a number of calls from concerned party members that they would not be able to vote in the city election.

The law indicates, as reported by Steve Terrell of the Santa Fe New Mexican, see here, that the Secretary of State is supposed to provide notification by March 15 to the party chair and within 45 days of that to all party members of the disqualification. She is also supposed to inform all of the county clerks of her decision. However, the Secretary of State did not keep to this timeline, even once she decided to move forward with disqualification and never contacted the County Clerks regarding this matter.

The Constitution Party has filed suit based upon the fact that she did not follow the timeline or inform the county clerks as was required by law (NM statue 1-7-2).

The biggest concern, however, is that some registered voters thought that as the party goes so do they; thus quite a number of Greens along with Constitution and Independent Party members thought they may have been disqualified and unable to vote. Given that this happened during a high stakes city election in which turnout was higher than in the previous months mayoral election, it is even more disconcerting. Some eligible voters may have decided not to turnout because they thought incorrectly they were no longer legitimately registered voters. A simple fix would have been to make the implications of the law clear to the voter and include in the letter an added sentence indicating that disqualification of the party, does not imply disqualification of the voter.

Election Blogger Defined as Inactive at Polls

Well, I went to the polls this AM to vote –I get a kick out of voting on Election Day, that symbolic moment when we all come together to make a decision; it’s sort of romantic. But, lo and behold, when I gave the poll worker my name there was something odd written next to it on the paper voter rolls –INACTIVE. As a regular voter, even in tiny school board elections, who hasn’t moved and never received a card stating I was at risk of being purged from the polls, I was a bit shocked. Fortunately, I was allowed to vote a regular ballot, though the poll workers did request I fill out a new voter registration form. However, as I filled it out, I realized there was a problem because I wasn’t an inactive voter and I hadn’t moved. So, when the form asked something like, do you agree for us to cancel your voter registration in county x and state x, I realized I didn’t agree, indeed I wanted my status to be reinstated to active not canceled and reentered. Moreover, my understanding of the law is that if I voted from an inactive status I would once again revert to active status. Therefore, given the glitch was clerical and there were no changes to my voter information, the poll workers should have done nothing and let me return to my true state of activity!

The issue of purging voters has been a front burner election topic with our current Secretary of State who is concerned that the voter roles may have people on it who are not regular voters (go here). Amusingly, I join prominent political wives and election reform activists who were determined “inactive” in a recent Secretary of State mailing. Obviously, something is wrong with the process of identifying inactive voters.

This brings up a more important point; keeping voter lists “clean” may have unintended consequences like purging legitimate voters who have a right to vote. We included a question on our NM Election Administration Voter Survey this year that asks voters if they are concerned they might be accidentally purged from the voter file. Let’s just say after my own experience today, I’m a bit more concerned myself and interested in seeing how average voters feel about this issue.