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“Rigged election” rhetoric is having an effect on voters — just not in the way you think.

Donald Trump’s relentless messaging about a “rigged election” is having an effect on the confidence voters have that their votes will be counted accurately.  But, it’s not the effect you think.

I came to this conclusion as I was considering yesterday’s Morning Consult poll results about confidence in the vote count.  It so happens that I asked almost exactly the same question on a national poll during the pre-election period in 2012.  (I can’t take all the credit.  My colleague at Reed College, Paul Gronke, joined me in sponsoring a “double-wide” module on the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.)  I decided to compare what Morning Consult found today with what we found almost exactly four years ago.

The results were surprising.  The percentage of respondents who say that they are “very confident” that their own votes will be counted accurately is virtually unchanged from 2012.  Confidence that votes nationwide will be counted accurately has, if anything, increased since 2012.  Trump’s rhetoric appears not to have reduced Republican confidence in the accuracy of the vote count over the past four years.  Rather, it has increased the confidence of Democrats.  The degree of party polarization over the quality of the vote count has increased since 2012, but it is Democratic shifts in opinion, not Republican, that are leading to this greater polarization.

Let me sketch out the background here.  In 2012, Gronke and I coordinated our modules in the CCES to ask a series of questions about election administration to a representative sample of 2,000 adults.  Two of these questions were:

  • How confident are you that your vote in the General Election will be counted as you intended?
  • How confident are you that votes nationwide will be counted as voters intend?

The first question was asked of respondents who reported they intended to vote in 2012; the second question was asked of all respondents.

The response categories for both questions were (1) very confident, (2) somewhat confident, (3) not too confident, (4) not at all confident, and (5) I don’t know.

The corresponding Morning Consult questions were:

  • How confident are you that your vote will be accurately counted in the upcoming election?
  • How confident are you that votes across the country will be accurately counted in the upcoming election?

The response categories were identical to ours, with the exception of an additional “no opinion” option with Morning Consult.

So, while the questions are not 100% identical, they are close enough to allow some meaningful comparisons.  (For those interested in a more systematic example of how similar survey research questions can be combined in this type of analysis, see the article I co-authored with Mike Sances, which appeared last year in Electoral Studies.)  Both the 2012 and 2016 studies were conducted about three weeks ahead of the general election, so the timing couldn’t be better.

In the table below, I compare Morning Consult’s 2016 results with Gronke’s and my results in 2012.  The numbers in the table are the percentages of the indicated respondents who gave the “very confident” response.

Your own vote Votes nationwide
2012 (Gronke/Stewart) 2016 (Morning Consult) 2012 (Gronke/Stewart) 2016 (Morning Consult)
All registered voters 41% 45% 16% 28%
Democrats 47% 59% 20% 43%
Republicans 42% 41% 13% 18%

The 2012 patterns were consistent with what my colleagues and I have regularly reported:  the “winning” party tends to be more confident than the “losing” party and voters tend to be much more confidence of their own votes being counted accurately than votes nationwide.


The 2016 patterns are similar, with a couple of major differences.  The most important similarity is that respondents in both 2012 and 2016 were more confident their own votes would be counted accurately than votes nationwide.  In 2012, the local-nationwide gap was 25 percentage points (41% vs. 16%); in 2016, the local-nationwide gap dropped to 17 percentage points (45% vs. 28%).


The most important changes come as we look down the table, at the Democratic-Republican differences.  Republican and Democratic opinions have changed in very different ways since 2012.  At the local level, Republicans remain about as confident as they were in 2012, but Democratic confidence has grown.  As a consequence, the Democratic-Republican gap in the confidence about local vote counting has grown from 5 percentage points to a much more substantial 18 percentage points.


In assessing the accuracy of the vote count nationwide, Republicans are actually a little more confident in 2016 than in 2012 (18% vs 13%), but this small change from 2016 is likely due to subtle differences between the two studies.  On the other hand, Democrats have become a lot more confident.  They are now a whopping 23 percentage points more confident than in 2012 that votes will be counted accurately nationwide (43% “very confident” vs 20%).


Much more work needs to be done on this issue, but a couple of tentative conclusions seem in order.  The first is that Donald Trump’s complaints about a “rigged” electoral system most clearly reminded his strongest supporters of what they already believed.  It is much less clear that Republicans who were not already convinced of the corruption of the election system have now had a change of heart.


The second conclusion is that Trump’s charges appear to have counter-mobilized Democratic opinion in novel ways.  Democrats have come to the defense of vote counting, not only in their own back yards, but even in other people’s back yards.


Either way, summary judgements about the legitimacy of the electoral process have become more polarized in 2016 than they were in 2012.  One possibility is that as time progresses, support for the electoral process as a whole will become associated with the Democratic Party in the public’s mind, with opposition associated with the Republican Party.  I am hoping that this is not the case, because we have seen important bipartisan improvements in the world of election administration over the past four years, despite continued partisan differences over voter ID laws and amending the Voting Rights Act.


We certainly need to be concerned about undermining the legitimacy of elected officials, especially in circumstances where there is no hard evidence of election rigging going on.  But, we also need to recall that once the November election is done and gone, elections will continue to be administered at the state and local levels.  The danger for election administration with all this unsubstantiated talk about fraud is that it will undermine the comity that has often existed in handling the day-to-day details of running elections.  In other words, the failure to institute improvements to local election administration will become collateral damage of this heightened polarization.




How secure are state voter registration databases?

Over the past few months, there’ve been a number of reports that state voter registration databases have come under cyberattack. Most recently, FBI Director James Comey discussed the attacks in a hearing of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. While details have been few, between what’s been reported by the FBI recently, and the various attacks on the email accounts of political parties and political leaders in the U.S., it’s seems clear that the U.S. election infrastructure is being probed for vulnerabilities.

So exactly how secure are state voter registration databases? I’ve been asked about this a number of times recently, by the media, colleagues, and students.

The potential threats to state voter registration databases have been known for a long time. In fact, I wrote a paper on this topic in October 2005 — that’s not a typo, October 2005. The paper, “Potential Threats to Statewide Voter Registration Systems”, is available as a Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project Working Paper. It’s also part of a collection of working papers in a NIST report, “Developing an Analysis of Threats to Voting Systems: Preliminary Workshop Summary.”

The context for my 2005 paper was that states were then rushing to implement their new computerized statewide voter registries, as required after the passage of the Help America Vote Act. At the time, a number of researchers (myself included) were concerned that in the rush to develop and implement these databases, and that important questions about their security and integrity needed to be addressed. So the paper was meant to provide some guidance about the potential security and integrity problems, in the hopes that they would be better studied and addressed in the near future.

The four primary types of threats that I wrote about regarded:

  • Authenticity of the registration file: attacks on the transmission path of voter registration data from local election officials to the state database, or attacks on the transmission path of data between the state registry to other state officials (for example, departments of motor vehicles).
  • Security of personal information in the file: state voter files contain a good deal of personal information, including names, birthdates, addresses, and contact information, which could be quite valuable to attackers.
  • Integrity of the file: the primary data files could be corrupted, either by mistakes which enter the data and are difficult to remove, or by systematic attack.
  • System failure: the files could fail at important moments, either due to problems with their architecture or technology, or if they come under systematic “denial of service” attacks.

By 2010, when I was a member of a National Academies panel, “Improving State Voter Registration Databases”, many of these same concerns were raised by panelists, and by the many election officials and observers of elections who provided input to the panel. It wasn’t clear how much progress had been made by 2010, towards making sure that the state voter registration systems then in place were secure.

Fast-forward to 2016, and very little research has been done on the security and integrity of state voter registration databases; despite the concerns raised in 2005 and 2010, there’s not been a great deal of research focused on the security of these systems, certainly nowhere near the amount of research that has focused on the security of other components of the American election infrastructure, in particular, the security of remote and in-person voting systems. I’d be happy to hear of research that folks have done; I’m aware of only a very few research projects that have looked at state voter registration systems. For example, there’s a paper that I worked on in 2009 with Jeff Jonas, Bill Winkler, and Rebecca Wright, where we matched the voter registration files from Oregon and Washington, in an effort to determine the utility of interstate matching to find duplicates between the states. Another paper that I know of is by Steve Ansolabehere and Eitan Hersh, which looks at the quality of the information in state voter registries. But there’s not been a lot of systematic study of the security of state voter registries; I recommend that researchers (like our Voting Technology Project) direct resources towards studying voter registration systems now, and in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election.

In addition to calling for more research on the security of state voter registration databases, election officials can take some immediate steps. The obvious step is to take action to make sure that these databases are now as secure as possible, and to determine whether there is any forensic evidence that the files might have been attacked or tampered with recently. A second step is to make sure that the database system will be robust in the face of a systematic denial of service attack. Third, election officials can devise a systematic approach towards providing pre- and post-election audits of their databases, something that I’ve strongly recommended in other work on election administration auditing (with Lonna Atkeson and Thad Hall). If election officials do audit their voter registration databases and processes, those reports should be made available to the public.

Questions about postal voting

Since the origins of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project in 2000, the VTP has noted a number of concerns about postal voting. Our original report in 2001 noted that postal voting represents clear tradeoffs, with benefits including convenience, but with potential risks, especially regarding the reliability and security of balloting by mail.

Our most recent report reiterated these same concerns, but added another, as there is new research indicating that many of the reductions in residual votes (a key measure of voting system reliability and accuracy) are at risk because of the increase in postal voting. One of these papers studies residual votes in California (“Voting Technology, Vote-by-Mail, and Residual Votes in California, 1990-2010”). The other is a national-level study, “Losing Votes by Mail.” There is an important signal in the residual vote data from recent elections, increased postal voting is associated with increased residual votes.

Now comes word of a new concern about the reliability of postal voting. Upcoming Austrian elections might be postponed due to faulty glue used in the ballot envelopes. This video helps explain the problem.

While we’ve raised questions in the past about the reliability of the mail system for balloting (in particular, noting that there’s always a risk that balloting materials might be delayed or misdirected, especially for overseas and military voters covered by the UOCAVA and MOVE Acts), a basic malfunction of postal voting material is not an issue that we’ve heard much of in the past. But clearly it may be an issue in the future, so researchers will need to keep an eye on what is learned from this Austrian postal ballot problem, how it it resolved, and determine how to prevent problems like these from happening.

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.

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.”


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.

Two new election science pieces in Political Analysis

Two new methodological pieces that will be of interest to students of election administration just came out in Political Analysis, (which is edited by my VTP-co-conspirator, Mike Alvarez).

(Warning to my non-academic followers:  serious math is involved in these papers.)

The first, by Kosuke Imai and Kabir Khanna, is entitled “Improving Ecological Inference by Predicting Individual Ethnicity from Voter Registration Records.”  In a nutshell, there are a lot of times when we need to know the race of registered voters, but we don’t have race as a data field in the voter file.  (This is true in all but a handful of states.)  Some people have dealt with this problem by relying on proprietary modeling techniques, such as that employed by Catalist, and others have simply used Census Bureau lists that classify last names by (likely) ethnicity.  Imai and Khanna have developed a technique, based on Bayes’s rule, to combine a variety of information, ranging from the surname list to geocoded information, to produce an improved method for modelling a voter’s ethnicity.  The technique is tested using the Florida voter file, which has race already coded, to make “ground truth” comparisons.

The second, by Gabriel Cepaluni and F. Daniel Hidalgo, is entitled “Compulsory Voting Can Increase Political Inequality:  Evidence from Brazil.”  This article will definitely be relevant for those interested in proposals to institute mandatory voting in the US.  Brazil is the largest country in the world with mandatory voting, which makes this case of particular interest.  Cepaluni and Hidalgo show that the causal effect of making voting mandatory is to increase SES disparities in turnout.  The reason is that the non-monetary penalties for non-voting primarily affect voters with higher incomes.

Happy reading!


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.


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.