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Competing Lessons from the Utah Republican Caucus

If you want a case that illustrates the clash of expectations in the presidential nomination process, you need look no further than Utah’s Republican caucuses that have just been held.

These problems were well illustrated in two postings that recently came across my computer screen (h/t to Steve Hoersting via Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog).  I make no claims about the accuracy of the claims (especially in Post # 1), but the sentiments expressed are certain genuine and representative.

Post # 1, a very interesting (to say the least) description of one person’s experience at the caucus, is a classic clash-of-expectations account.  In this posting, we learn that the lines to check in were long, ballots were given out in an unsecured fashion, those running the event didn’t always seem to know what’s going on, one-person-one-vote may have been violated, the ballot wasn’t exactly secret, and those counting the ballots didn’t want too many people looking over their shoulders.  About which I think, “sounds like a caucus to me.”

Caucuses are a vestige of early 19th century America, intended to pick nominees, to be sure, but with other goals in mind as well, such as rewarding the party faithful with meaningful activity and instilling control over the party base.  What we moderns value about primaries — that they are run by professionals, are designed to minimize coercion, and value access and security simultaneously — is precisely what caucuses are not.  Primaries were not gifted to Americans by a benevolent God, but were fought for by reformers over many years.  Primaries have their problems (among which is the fact that primary laws also had the [intended] effect of killing off minor parties), but it is a mistake to judge caucuses as if they were primaries.

Post # 2 is a story in Wired about the Utah Republican Party’s use of an online elections vendor to run an absentee voting process for the caucuses over the Internet. The writer’s point of view is that online voting in an election is an outrage because of the well-known problems with security and auditability of voting over the Internet.  Fair enough.  But, this is not a secret ballot election, it is a caucus.  If there is outrage to be expressed along these lines, it is for Republican leaders lending the appearance of a secret ballot election to a different sort of proceeding.

The Wired story also uncovers frustration among many thousands (probably) of would-be Internet voters that they were unable to vote because their party registration could not be verified, which may be another way of saying they were not eligible to vote in the first place, and would have been turned away from a physical caucus if they had appeared there instead.  Thus, we have another mismatch of expectations, pitting party leaders, who have every right to guard the associational rights of the party organization, against party voters, whose affiliation with the parties is one of identity rather than organizational membership.

This presidential nomination season has been infinitely interesting, one that will go down in history.  As the process drags on, moving from the high-profile early states to the low-profile middle and later states, we are seeing more and more examples of inconsistent expectations between process organizers and voters.  I suspect this will lead to an interesting round of reform activity (The Republican Party Meets McGovern-Fraser anyone?) once the dust has settled in November.


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.”

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.

VTP released new report on polling place resources

coverJust as the one-year count-down for the 2016 presidential election has begun, the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has released a new report today about managing polling place resources.  Click here for the executive summary, and here for the full report.

This report serves as a companion to a set of Web-based tools that the VTP developed and posted at the request of the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA), to facilitate the recommendation that local jurisdictions “develop models and tools to assist them in effectively allocating resources across polling places.”

The report takes several new steps in the effort to spread the word about the usefulness of applying queuing theory to improve polling place practices.  First, it provides a single source of facts about lines at polling places in 2012 (with some updating to 2014).  Second, it provides a brief, intuitive introduction to queuing theory as applied to polling places — with a brief list of suggested readings for those who would like to learn more.  Finally, the report uses data from two actual local election jurisdictions and walks through “what-if analyses” that rely on the application of the resource allocation tools.

The report released today provides basic facts about where long lines were experienced in 2012 and which voters — based on race, voting mode, and residence — waited longer than others.  Information about the 2014 election updates previous research, and underscores how long lines tend to be more prevalent in on-year (presidential) elections than in midterm elections.  Beyond providing basic facts about the location of lines in American elections, the report provides a basic introduction to the science of line management, queuing theory, and a list of further readings for those who wish to delve more deeply into the subject.  Finally, this report demonstrates how the Web-based tools might be used, by working through actual data from two local jurisdictions.

The report is part of the Polling Place of the Future Project (PPOTF) of the VTP, which has been generously supported by the Democracy Fund.  Since the release of the PCEA report, the VTP calculator website has been visited thousands of times by users across the country (and around the world.)  We have received feedback from numerous jurisdictions about the utility of these calculators, as state and local officials try to effectively allocate their limited resources.

In recent months, two of the resource calculators have been updated, and those updates have been posted on the site.  The new versions include improvements to the user interfaces and the ability to upload data from multiple precincts, which allows the simultaneous analysis of hundreds of polling places for large jurisdictions.

With the one-year countdown to Election Day 2016 already underway, some might say that it is too late to make use of such analytical tools to make a difference in the next presidential election.  However, my experience is that most election administrators are always looking for ways to improve the experience for voters; thus the publication of a report that highlights how existing tools might help them prepare for November 2016 comes at the right time for those election administrators who are looking to fine-tune their plans for next year.

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.

Automatic voter registration coming to California

California’s Governor Brown over the weekend signed into law new steps to automatically register eligible voters when they get their driver’s license in the state. Here’s a link to a NY Times story on the legislation.

The new automatic registration process won’t take effect until sometime next year, after California’s new voter registration system is fully functional. However, once the automatic registration procedures are enacted, though, this will mean that many eligible voters will be added to the state’s voter registration database and thus they won’t have to take any extra steps in order to register to vote. By being in the voter registration system, these new voters will start to get information from state and local election officials about upcoming elections, and no doubt they will also start to get communications from campaigns urging them to vote.

The longer-term effects of this new automatic voter registration procedure will no doubt be the subject of lots of research in the future. We’ll of course want to study changes in voter registration and turnout in the state, but also it will be important to determine what this new automatic registration system might imply for the workflow for local election administrators in California.

Two new research articles on elections

This morning two new research articles on elections were published electronically by Political Analysis, one on election forensics and the other on measuring the competitiveness of elections. Both should be of interest to Election Updates readers.

The first is by Jacob Montgomery, Santiago Olivella, Joshua Potter and Brian Crisp, “An Informed Forensics Approach to Detecting Vote Irregularies.” Here’s the abstract of their paper:

Electoral forensics involves examining election results for anomalies to efficiently identify patterns indicative of electoral irregularities. However, there is disagreement about which, if any, forensics tool is most effective at identifying fraud, and there is no method for integrating multiple tools. Moreover, forensic efforts have failed to systematically take advantage of country-specific details that might aid in diagnosing fraud. We deploy a Bayesian additive regression trees (BART) model—a machine-learning technique—on a large cross-national data set to explore the dense network of potential relationships between various forensic indicators of anomalies and electoral fraud risk factors, on the one hand, and the likelihood of fraud, on the other. This approach allows us to arbitrate between the relative importance of different forensic and contextual features for identifying electoral fraud and results in a diagnostic tool that can be relatively easily implemented in cross-national research.

This paper contributes to a series of papers published in PA that develop and text new methodologies for the detection of election irregularities and potential fraud.

The second paper is by Kai Quek and Michael Sances, “Closeness Counts: Increasing Precision and Reducing Errors in Mass Election Predictions.” Measuring the closeness of election contests is important for those who study elections, so this is a paper that readers of this blog should find of considerable interest. Here is the paper’s abstract:

Mass election predictions are increasingly used by election forecasters and public opinion scholars. While they are potentially powerful tools for answering a variety of social science questions, existing measures are limited in that they ask about victors rather than voteshares. We show that asking survey respondents to predict voteshares is a viable and superior alternative to asking them to predict winners. After showing respondents can make sensible quantitative predictions, we demonstrate how traditional qualitative forecasts lead to mistaken inferences. In particular, qualitative predictions vastly overstate the degree of partisan bias in election forecasts, and lead to wrong conclusions regarding how political knowledge exacerbates this bias. We also show how election predictions can aid in the use of elections as natural experiments, using the effect of the 2012 election on partisan economic perceptions as an example. Our results have implications for multiple constituencies, from methodologists and pollsters to political scientists and interdisciplinary scholars of collective intelligence.