Election toolkits and the PCA report

In the minds of some, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration was President Obama’s “long lines commission.” While that is an overly narrow description of the commission’s mandate, it identifies the most salient of the motivations behind appointing the commission — reports of voters waiting to vote in the 2012 election. In the words of President Obama, “we have to fix that.”

The commission — rightfully, in my view  — didn’t weigh in with diagnosis about what causes all lines, nor did it prescribe a magic bullet to fix them.  It did pronounce that a maximum of 30 minutes should be the upper bound of acceptable waiting which, again, is defensible and achievable.

One reason for long lines is that resources are sometimes misallocated to polling places (either on Election Day or in Early Voting).  The commission encourages the development of computerized tools to help local jurisdictions figure out how many resources  — people, voting machines, poll books, etc.  — need to be allocated to each voting location.  The encouragement is so strong that a link to a collection of such tools appears on the Commission’s web site, right next to the link one clicks on to download its final report.  (In addition, a little down the page, the Commission’s web site has a link to the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology-maintained site that will host these tools in perpetuity, hopefully adding more as time goes by.)

I encourage people to give the tools a look.  They include resource calculators developed by MIT Sloan School Professor Steve Graves, election geek Aaron Strauss, and software developer Mark Pelczarski, and various online voter registration tools developed by Rock the Vote.  The tools range from efforts that have already proven themselves in past elections (the Pelczarski and RtV tools) to more notional examples that I trust will continue to develop in the coming months.

Here is the most important part of the online tool kit, in my view:  Most local election officials are flying blind, when it comes to knowing how many voting machines (and similar devices) they should have in order to serve their communities well, and how to spread those devices among their precincts.  They will tell you, as they have told me, that they have rules they follow, based on state law and past elections.  But, as far as I can tell, the reigning rules of thumb about resource allocation are unrelated to machine performance.

Most election directors in large jurisdictions, where lines were the biggest problem, could not tell you (within a reasonable degree of certainty) how many voting machines and poll books they would need to meet the commission’s 30-minute standard, because they generally don’t have access to engineering-based tools to compute the right answer.

To some degree, these tools do exist, and the online tool kit web site is an effort to begin collecting them.  Still, even the existing tools need to be refined, in light of the needs of local election officials.  It is my hope that the online tool kit site, hosted by the VTP, will be the focus of tool development in the coming years.  I encourage people to give them a look, to try and improve them, and to contribute to the collection.

VTP resources relevant to the PCEA report

With the release of the final report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, readers may be interested in a set of resources that were produced in response to the commission’s charge.  All of these are mentioned somewhere in the commission’s report (and appendix) and on its web site, but here is a convenient listing.  More information about each of them will be forthcoming over the next 24 hours.

Survey of Local Election Officials:  Results of a nationwide survey of all local election officials (response rate around 50%) about their work and the challenges they face.  (Please note that the data file still needs a little more cleaning, but should be of interest for those interested in exploring these topics from the perspective of local officials.)

Election Toolkit:  The beginning of a collection of computer tools that can be used to help manage various aspect of elections. (We encourage further contributions.)

White papers on election administration:  Papers written by a collection of top social scientists in the election administration field about aspects of the commission’s charge.  (These are VTP working papers 111-119.)

I am in the middle of end-of-semester grades meetings at MIT today, which is preventing me from blogging more about these resources and issues raised by the commission report.  So, stay tuned!


More new research on voter turnout: Hur and Achen in POQ on “Coding Voter Turnout Responses in the CPS”

Well, when it rains it pours!

Just as I got done writing the post earlier today on the new paper by Hanmer et al. on voter turnout I discovered that a new paper by Aram Hur and Christopher H. Achen was just published in Public Opinion Quarterly. The Hur and Achen paper discusses an important issue that has long been noted by students of voter turnout in the United States: assumptions that the CPS makes about non-responses to their voter turnout question, how they code those non-responses, and what implications those assumptions and coding decisions have for the levels of turnout that CPS reports.

Here’s the abstract of the Hur and Achen paper, “Coding Voter Turnout Responses in the Current Population Survey”:

The Voting and Registration Supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) employs a large sample size and has a very high response rate, and thus is often regarded as the gold standard among turnout surveys. In 2008, however, the CPS inaccurately estimated that presidential turnout had undergone a small decrease from 2004. We show that growing nonresponse plus a long-standing but idiosyncratic Census coding decision was responsible. We suggest that to cope with nonresponse and overreporting, users of the Voting Supplement sample should weight it to reflect actual state vote counts.

This paper should be on the reading list of anyone who uses CPS voter turnout data in their research.

New research on the over-reporting of turnout in surveys: Hanmer, Banks and White in Political Analysis

There’s an interesting analysis of over-reporting of turnout in the most recent issue of Political Analysis (the journal that I co-edit with Jonathan Katz). This paper, by Michael J. Hanmer, Antoine J. Banks, and Ismail K. White, looks at different means of asking survey questions about turnout. Here’s the abstract for “Experiments to Reduce the Over-Reporting of Voting: A Pipeline to the Truth.”

Voting is a fundamental part of any democratic society. But survey-based measures of voting are problematic because a substantial proportion of nonvoters report that they voted. This over-reporting has consequences for our understanding of voting as well as the behaviors and attitudes associated with voting. Relying on the “bogus pipeline” approach, we investigate whether altering the wording of the turnout question can cause respondents to provide more accurate responses. We attempt to reduce over-reporting simply by changing the wording of the vote question by highlighting to the respondent that: (1) we can in fact find out, via public records, whether or not they voted; and (2) we (survey administrators) know some people who say they voted did not. We examine these questions through a survey on US voting-age citizens after the 2010 midterm elections, in which we ask them about voting in those elections. Our evidence shows that the question noting we would check the records improved the accuracy of the reports by reducing the over-reporting of turnout.

JETS — Journal of Election Technology and Systems call for papers

Just a reminder (and note to self!), submissions for JETS Volume 2, Number 3 are due on April 8, 2014! Here’s a link for additional information.

Leighley and Nagler, Who Votes Now?

Right before the holidays, a new book came out by Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States. The book is published by Princeton University Press, and I strongly encourage everyone who is interested in voter participation in the United States to read this new book. Jan and Jonathan have studied voter participation in the U.S. for a considerable period, and their book presents a variety of new analyses that examine the effects of various election reform efforts on voter participation.

Vote buying allegations in Texas

There is a story this morning in the NY Times, “Texas Vote-Buying Case Casts Glare on Tradition of Election Day Goads” that details recent vote buying allegations in Texas. One of the interesting details in the story concerns what the alleged fraudsters were willing to pay for votes:

Three women working as politiqueras in the 2012 elections in Donna were arrested by F.B.I. agents in December and accused of giving residents cash, drugs, beer and cigarettes in exchange for their votes.

According to court documents, the typical payment to a voter was $10, a sign of the extreme poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, which is home to some of the poorest counties in America. Two of the three women — Rebecca Gonzalez and Guadalupe Escamilla — are accused of paying some voters as little as $3 for each of their votes. One voter was given a pack of cigarettes. Others were taken to buy drugs after they received cash for voting for a politiquera’s candidate.

IFES 2014 Elections to Watch

IFES has put out this handy summary of “Elections to Watch“.

My Two Cents on Schools as Polls

As Mike and Lonna noted, each of us have had less than pleasant encounters with school principals regarding polling places in schools and I have blogged about this before. In one of our many polling place observations in Southern California, Mike watched with some amusement when an elementary school principal expressed anger when I took a picture of an election sign at her school.; she didn’t like adults with cameras on her property, and for good reason.

Let me note a couple of other reasons schools are terrible polling places, other than the security of students.

  1. They have lousy parking.  Schools are not designed with excess parking capacity, especially schools in populated areas.  Schools have parking for teachers and some high schools have student parking but they aren’t meant for having hundreds of people park there.
  2. Rush hour for schools is rush hour for voting.  The busiest time for schools is when they open — typically between 7-8:30, which are also peak morning voting times.  The crush of people coming to vote and parents or buses dropping off kids can be quite chaotic.
  3. Where to put the polls in a school?  There often aren’t good places for the polls in a school.  Schools can be noisy places before classes, during lunch, and after classes.  Putting to polls near gathering places is a problem for this reason.  Putting them away from the immediate entrance puts voters too far into the building for security purposes.  And the polls need to be near the disability accessible entrance and this too can be a challenge.

The easy answer is to make election day a holiday and schools would not be open in the first place.  THEN, they would be great polling locations.

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.