Research on UOCAVA voting

In today’s world, the shelf life of a typical academic research article is pretty short. Most papers are published electronically, with a quick and immediate burst of attention (usually fueled by conversation about the paper on social media). After that initial burst of attention, for most academic papers, mentions online and citations quickly wane.

So it was with some pride that I heard of continued interest in a paper that I published over a decade ago with Thad E. Hall and Brian F. Roberts, “Military Voting and the Law: Procedural and Technological Solutions to the Ballot Transit Problem.” In the paper, we looked at UOCAVA voting, focusing on how the focus on the issue has changed from concerns about procedures to concerns about technologies.

I’ve gone back and re-read this paper, and thought I’d write about it here as it covers the history of UOCAVA voting quite well. It serves as a good primer for the history of the issues surrounding UOCAVA voting, and it really sets the stage well for understanding the challenges that UOCAVA voters and election officials face when they try to make sure that UOCAVA voters can easily and securely exercise their voting rights. The basic technological challenges that we discuss in the paper are as true and real today as they were when we wrote the paper over a decade ago.

And the good news is that this paper is available online, so give it a read if you are interested in the history of UOCAVA voting.

Mitigating Mischief

As I wrote last week, CSPAN recently profiled research that I’ve been working on with Andy Sinclair. The interview aired over the past weekend, and it’s now online. Here’s the link to the CSPAN interview.

And here is a link to our book, Nonpartisan Primary Election Reform: Mitigating Mischief.

Andy and I are working on new work on the top-two primary, in collaboration with Christian Grose (USC) and Betsy Sinclair (WUSTL). We hope to have our next book with Christian and Betsy done soon, stay tuned!

New research on online voter registration and turnout

Since the movement towards online voter registration began years ago, there’s been discussion among academics, advocates, and election officials about whether online voter registration will boost voter turnout.

There’s a new research article published electronically in Social Science Quarterly, by Jinjai Yu, that looks into this question. The paper, “Does State Online Voter Registration Increase Voter Turnout”, uses Census self-reported voter turnout data, looking at the potential association between the availability of online voter registration and voter turnout. To quote from the paper’s abstract:

The results of this study demonstrate that state online voter registration increases voter turnout. The difference‐in‐difference analysis shows that the states’ implementation of online voter registration increases the turnout of young voters by about 3 percentage points in presidential election years. The instrumental variable analysis shows that the usage of online registration by voters increases their turnout by about 18 to 20 percentage points.

According to the analysis reported in the paper, the availability of online voter registration seems to be especially important for younger citizens in presidential election years.

Call for papers: Election Science and Administration Research Symposium in APR

There’s a call for research papers on election administration, to be published in the journal American Politics Research. The special issue of APR will be edited by Martha Kropf — I’m looking forward to seeing it!

Here’s a link to the call.

I encourage readers who are conducting research on voting technology and election administration to submit their work to APR for this special issue. There’s now a great deal of really fantastic research going on across a variety of academic disciplines, it’s wonderful to see the creation of these venues for publishing that work.

Thanks to Martha Kropf for editing the special issue, and to APR’s editor Costas Panagopoulos for his vision to make this special issue possible.

Don’t miss C-SPAN on Saturday!

C-SPAN was recently in Pasadena, as part of their Cities Tour. I did an interview with them, focusing on my research with Andrew Sinclair on primary election reform in California. My interview will be aired at 4:30pm Pacific on Book TV (CSPAN-2), so don’t miss it.

The interview centers around the book that Andy and I published, Nonpartisan Primary Election Reform: Mitigating Mischief. I talked a bit during the interview about the work that Andy and I have been doing more recently with Betsy Sinclair of Washington University in St. Louis and Christian Grose of USC, studying the more recent elections in California using the top-2 system (hopefully that material didn’t end up on the cutting room floor!).

But if you do miss it on Saturday, when the link to the interview is available, I’ll post it here.

Big changes coming in the OC

As Election Updates readers know, in 2018 our Caltech team collaborated in an important election integrity and election performance auditing study with the Orange County Registrar of Voters. The project material is available online — and we are now working on various research papers and a book-length report about the pilot project, how we did it, what we found, and how we can improve on these methods in the future.

In an interesting development, Orange County will be moving away from traditional Election Day polling place voting, towards more widespread use of voting by mail and vote centers. Here’s an OC Registrar story that talks about the transition.

We are looking forward to the continuation of our collaboration with OCROV, and helping them as they implement and evaluate this transition in 2020. The data and analyses that we did in 2018 will provide strong baseline data that we can use to evaluate the changes in 2020, and there’s no doubt that the results of our continued collaboration will provide important data for other jurisdictions that are planning on similar transitions in the near future.

New developments in the fight on election interference

There is a news report today that in last fall’s midterm elections, the U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA worked to take Russian cyber-trolls offline. It’s an interesting new development in the continuing fight against interference in U.S. elections. Here’s a link to the Washington Post story, and here’s the summary:

The strike on the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, a company underwritten by an oligarch close to President Vladi­mir Putin, was part of the first offensive cyber-campaign against Russia designed to thwart attempts to interfere with a U.S. election, the officials said.

“They basically took the IRA offline,” according to one individual familiar with the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information. “They shut them down.”

Interesting development in the continuing struggle to fight cyber interference in elections.

Announcing a User Group and Listserv for Data Analysts Working for Federal, State, and Local Election Agencies

Today I’m announcing that the MIT Election Data and Science Lab is creating a user group and related listserv intended for data analysts who work for federal, state, and local election agencies.  I hope that anyone who is interested will read on.

Anyone interested may add themselves to the listserv by going to this link, or by e-mailing me .

The details

The idea behind this user group and listserv is based on the observation that election agencies are increasingly hiring employees to provide data analysis in support of election administration.  In some cases, these are separate, full-time positions.  In others, these are positions for which data analysis is one of several duties.  Some of these employees come from data science or policy analysis backgrounds.  Others have fallen into the position, as the agency they work for found it necessary to respond to requests for increasingly sophisticated data analysis and data requests.

As the number of people providing data analysis to election agencies grows, so does the value of creating a professional community of election administration data analysts.  Some of the benefits include learning from peers, working out puzzles, contributing to the development of this field, and sharing the joys and frustrations of the job.

One can imagine at least two ways that this community could evolve over time.  First, it could exist as an online community organized around the listserv.  The model here is something like the election law listserv that Rick Hasen coordinates out of UC-Irvine.  That’s the minimalist path. The second path is a little more involved, and have a more face-to-face component.  The model I have in mind for this is the annual State Certification Testing of Voting Systems Conference that has been held for nearly a decade.  Others will certainly have other ideas.

My own hope is that we could evolve this into something like the State Certification conference (which I always call the “Merlefest,” after one of its founders and its soul, Merle King), which has done a great job of building a community among those who are responsible for the voting technology side of the house. Not only has it been a great place to share information, but it has provided a safe place for members of the community to develop a professional identity and accumulate knowledge.

For now, we’re starting with a listserv.  Our hope is that the listserv would allow election agency employees who work in data analysis to get to know each other and learn from each other.

Anyone interested may add themselves to the listserv by going to this link, or by e-mailing me .

Feel free to distribute this message to others who might be interested.  For now, we will restrict membership to people who work for federal, state, and local election agencies.  Once a community is established, it can decide whether to add people who do similar work, but for non-election agencies.

One last point:  Some will notice that although we are suggesting that this be a community confined (at the moment) to employees of election agencies, MEDSL is not such an agency.  We recognize the irony.  Our goal is to help jump-start this effort.  Once it gets going, we can step away, if that’s the will of the group.  For now, the important thing is to start.

Six Thoughts on Election Audits: Reflections on the December 2018 Audit Summit at MIT

The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project hosted an Election Audit Summit last month that was interesting, fun, and a success (if I say so myself).  With the holidays now over, it thought I would post my initial reactions to the issues raised at the event.

If you want to experience what happened, the conference’s website hosts an archive of the webcast of all the presentations.  The presentation slides are posted there, as well.

While much of the day-and-a-half event focused on risk-limiting audits (RLAs), the conference covered many other topics as well, such as auditing voter lists, ballots, and the assignment of voters to legislative districts.  Attendees covered a wide variety of perspectives — academics, state and local election officials, interested citizens, and committed voter verification activists. In other words, there were people in the room who don’t talk to each other much, and even have been known to talk past each other.

My initial reaction to the event are summarized in these five thoughts.

  1. RLAs have come a long way.
  2. RLAs have a long way to go.
  3. Comprehensive auditing is key.
  4. Auditing isn’t the only way to ensure election integrity.
  5. We need more dialogue like this.

Let me expand on these points a bit.

RLAs have come a long way. 

RLAs have come a long way in the decade-plus period they have been part of the election reform landscape.  RLAs have come a long way along many dimension — theoretical and mathematical justification, practical application, and widespread acceptance.

One of the reasons for this progress is that the intellectual pioneers of RLAs, such as Philip Stark and Ron Rivest, have invested precious time and energy to meet with officials, help run pilots, and develop publicly accessible software tools.

Progress has been made because states, like Colorado, have invested in passing laws, buying equipment, and rearranging how they run elections, so that RLAs are integrated into everyday election administration.  Other states, like Rhode Island and Virginia, have passed laws setting them on a path to eventually following Colorado.

In addition, intrepid state and local officials in places like California, Indiana, Michigan, and New Jersey have sanctioned small-scale pilots.  Finally, there’s a scientific/policy consensus that RLAs are a goal to aim for over the next decade, reflected in the recent report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine on making voting more secure.  (Fair warning: Rivest and I were co-authors of that report.)

RLAs have a long way to go

Despite the great strides over the past decade to build consensus around the value of RLAs, and to make them practical to implement, there’s a lot more work to be done.  At the audit summit, we heard statements and questions such as these:

  • RLA still needs its elevator speech. It remains too complicated an idea to explain to a typical state legislator, who will give you five minutes to make your case.
  • The role of the human element still needs to be established and managed. Tons of details need to be managed in implementing RLAs and humans are bad at keeping track of lots of tedious details.  What is the role of software in managing the process, and how do we know to trust it?
  • Which contests should be audited? Eventually, all elections should be subjected to a risk-limiting audit, but as the technique is being developed, should we focus on top-of-the-ballot offices or down-ballot offices?
  • How much trust needs to be put into the math, and by whom? Although techniques can be put into place that reduce the process of conducting an RLA to a matter of arithmetic, that arithmetic is based on statistical theory. Who vets the theory?  Who sets the standards?
  • Bayesianism vs. frequentism. The canonical RLA models derive from a traditional frequentist approach to statistics.  New approaches rely on Bayesian  Who choses between approaches?  How do RLA laws get written, in a context that the science is still developing?
  • How will RLAs interface with other election-challenge processes? Will the expectation that RLAs be conducted as a part of the canvass process conflict with the goal in close elections to keep ballots undisturbed until the recount? As a general matter, RLA laws may interact with election contest in unanticipated and complex ways.

Comprehensive auditing is key

Risk-limiting audits aren’t the only game in town.  In fact, in my own view — which is not shared by others — RLAs may end up being a bit player in the drive to increase the degree of quality assurance in elections.  At the very least, post-election audits of the vote tally touch on just one aspect of elections where the details matter, mistakes can be easily made, and malicious actors can penetrate.

As I noted in my remarks that kicked off the conference, developments since the 2016 election have illustrated that American elections are operating at increasingly close tolerances; mistakes can have material effects on the outcomes of elections.  Just consider the evidence provided by the breach of the Illinois voter-registration system, the omission of 118,000 voters from the rolls in Los Angeles County during the 2018 primary, the mis-assignment of voters in the 2017 Virginia state election that may have affected the partisan composition of the House of Delegates, and the ballot-design fiasco in Broward County this year that affected the U.S. Senate race in Florida.

Many of the speakers at the conference touched on work they are doing to ensure that voter registration systems, ballots, and the assignment of voters to districts are handled properly.  This was the focus of the first Saturday morning panel, which can be seen by going to this link and choosing the Day 2 AM session # 1.  My favorite line from this very good panel was when Whitney Quesenbery remarked that “post-election auditing is only as good as the paper trail is it based on.”

This idea, that we need more than just RLAs, is related to an argument made by one of the fathers of RLAs, Philip Stark, who, along with David Wagner, has made the case for “evidence-based elections.”  Still, the evidence-based election idea has tended to focus on issues related to tabulation and record-keeping about the tabulation, and I think the horizons need to be expanded even further.

While on the issue of expanding horizons, I also should add that two panelists, Emily Beaulieu and Walter Mebane, reminded us that we can learn a lot about election integrity by considering elections in other countries.  The tools they discussed are particularly relevant when access to the ballots is precluded.  Walter, of course, is well known for developing tools, such as the Election Forensics Toolkit and Guide, that help to conduct forensic analysis of election results, by tagging data anomalies.  Emily wrapped up her presentation by noting that in the polarized societies she studies, sometimes social peace is bought by not being as transparent as Americans would like their elections to be.

We need more dialogue like this

As an observer of election administration trends, it is clear that the world is gravitating toward greater accountability in election administration.  One indicator of this trend is the movement toward requiring more sophisticated audits of election.  The challenge, as I’ve suggested in this piece, is that more sophisticated vote tabulation audits are still in their infancy, both theoretically and practically, and that other forms of quality control are even further behind.

The area of election auditing will only advance with the close collaboration of election officials and technically inclined outsiders, both inside and outside academia.

Absent that collaboration, election administration risks making the outcome of elections prey to errors and malicious attacks; the technically inclined also risk looking like arrogant scolds.

The most heartening aspect of the audit summit is that people with a diversity of opinions, backgrounds, and capabilities could spend two days listening to and learning from each other.  I’m hoping the audit summit can become a regular event.  We have a lot of work still to do.

Fraud, Suppression, and Hacking: Worries about the 2018 Election, and How They Changed

Commentary about the 2018 election often focused on two categories of worries that politicians, voters, and the punditocracy had about its administration — hacking and fraud.  The outcome of the election did a little bit to ease concerns about these worries, especially on the hacking front.  Partisan divisions continued when it came to attitudes about fraud; attitudes were less structured along party lines, and were more likely to change after the election, when it came to hacking.

This is the last in a series of essays I have posted that have contrasted attitudes about the conduct of the 2018 election, comparing the pre- and post-election periods.  A few days ago, I looked at the broad question of voter confidence. and the (possible) demise of the “winners effect.”  Before that, I took at look at the narrower question of confidence in preparations to counter cyber threats in the election.

The data in this post were taken from two surveys I conducted, one before the election (during June 7-11) and one after (during November 7–9).  In each case, the surveys interviewed 1,000 adults as a part of the YouGov Omnibus survey.  The research was supported by a grant from NEO Philanthropy, which bears no responsibility for the results or analysis.

Fraud, Suppression, and Hacking

Elections are complicated stories.  During the conduct of an election, claims are regularly made in an effort to set the public’s expectations about whether the outcome will be, or was, fair.  In recent years, these claims have gotten more insistent and sharper, but they  have been part and parcel of election contests for centuries.

At the risk of over-simplifying, in 2018, three topics showed up in the news on a regular basis that bore on the conduct of the election and its fairness.  The first was fraud, or the idea that the wrong people — immigrants, double-voters, and the like — were illegally voting.  The second was suppression, or the idea that efforts were being made by officials to discourage voting by people because of their race or party.  The final was hacking, or the idea that computer equipment used to administer the election was being tampered with.

We can further divide this last topic in two, by distinguishing between tampering with the computer systems running the election, such as voter registration systems, and the voting machines used to cast and count ballots.

To gauge worries about these topics, in June and in November (after the election), I asked the following battery of questions:

Many people worry that elections might be tampered with, because of the illegal or unethical actions of others.  The following is a list of four ways that bad actors might try to tamper with elections.  [June question] How much of a problem do you consider these to be in a typical election in the United States? [November question]  How much of a problem do you consider these to have been in the recent midterm election nationwide?

  • Tampering with the computers used by election administrators to run elections [Computer tampering]
  • Tampering with the voting equipment used to cast or count ballots [Voting machine tampering]
  • People trying to vote even though they are too young, don’t actually live in the precinct, or are non-citizens [Voter fraud]
  • Officials trying to keep people from voting because of their party membership or race [Voter suppression]

The response categories were “major problem,” “minor problem,” “not a problem,” and “don’t know.”

In June, the biggest perceived problems were tampering with the computers used to run elections (40% “major problem” ) and suppression (41%), followed by tampering with voting machines (36%) and voter fraud (30%). (Click on the accompanying graph to emlargify it.)

With the November election, attitudes moved in two directions.  On the one hand, more people responded that they didn’t know the answer to the question.  Whether this reflects an actual change in attitude, or is an artifact of the survey method and the slight change in questions between the two administrations, remains to be explored.

On the other hand, respondents generally eased their concerns over whether hacking, fraud, or suppression were problems.  These are not huge shifts, but they are consistent, for instance, with my previous finding that respondents became more confident in cyber-preparedness over time.

The role of party

Party is the big independent variable these days, so it’s natural to explore partisan differences in these answers.  Democrats have run on an anti-suppression platform in recent years, while Republicans have been vocal in suggesting that fraud is the election problem to be worried about.

Thus, it’s not surprising that these partisan differences showed up in answers to these survey questions, especially the questions pertaining to fraud and suppression.

In the November survey, for instance, 58% of Democrats stated that voter fraud had not been a problem in the 2018 election, compared to only 16% of Republicans.  In contrast, 48% of Republicans said that suppression was not a problem, compared to only 9% of Democrats.

There were also partisan difference on the two hacking questions, although they weren’t as stark.  For instance, Republicans were more likely to state that tampering with computers used to administer elections was not a problem, by a 29%-16% margin, and that tampering with the voting machines was not a problem (29%-17%).   This partisan difference shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed these issues, but it also bears emphasizing that there is much greater variability in attitudes about hacking within the parties than there is about fraud and suppression.

So much for November attitudes.  How did attitudes change from the summer?

Here, it really matters what the question is.  Both Democrats and Republicans became less likely to state that hacking of either sort was a problem, after the election had been conducted, although the change was greater in reference to administrative computers compared to voting machines.

On the question of fraud, the outcome of the election did little to change attitudes among members of both parties.

However, on the issue of suppression, we see some interesting variation and distinction between the parties.  Republicans became much less likely to regard suppression as a problem, either a major or minor one, when the question was asked in November, compared to June.

Among Democrats, the fraction saying that suppression was a minor problem fell between June and November, with a slight increase coming among those who said it was a major problem, plus, of course, the increase in the number of people who stated they didn’t know the answer to the question.

Some final thoughts

The purpose of these surveys was to take the pulse of voters, and not to probe these issues deeply.  Therefore, unfortunately, it’s not possible to probe deeply the nature of partisan changes since the summer.

One observations seems obvious to probe in the future, as better and deeper data come available.  Among the four topics explored in these surveys, the issue of voter fraud is probably the most long-standing.  Party divisions were big in June, and they didn’t budge much because of the election.

The other three issues are more emergent.  In the case of suppression, Democrats have certainly been pressing the issue for many years.  In contrast, it’s possible that Republicans just haven’t been paying much attention.  Thus, it is possible that news from states like Georgia and Florida in the days immediately before and after November 6 primed a partisan response, especially among Republicans.  (Democrats were already there.)

The issue of election hacking has emerged in a context of difficult-to-parse claims that evoke attitudes of patriotism, partisanship, and acceptance of technology.  Because the 2018 election ended up being relatively quiet when it came to news of verified cyber attacks on the system, it’s to be expected that Election Day brought relief among voters of all types.

Had there been a major verified cyber attack, the attitudinal patterns would probably have been considerably different.  Consider, for instance, what would have happened if the Broward County election-night reporting system had been hacked into.  Of course, the important thing for the conduct of the election is that it wasn’t hacked into.  But, the important thing for understanding public opinion about election hacking is that 2018 did not test the system like 2016 did, or like 2020 might.

In the coming months, much more comprehensive public opinion data will become available from the 2018 election that will allow more in-depth exploration of the issues I have written about in Election Updates, here and in past weeks.  (The recent release of a great report by the Pew Research Center on some of these issues has left me champing at the bit to gain access to the raw data, once it comes available.)  Until then the equivalent of the election geek hot-stove league will have to chew over the evidence we do have, as we look forward to the spring and even better public opinion data on these issues — not to mention the promise of baseball.