Overseas voters in the 2004 presidential election: new EAC report again underscores need for better reporting of election data

Recently the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) released a report on their 2004 survey of UOCAVA voting. While this report is focused on UOCAVA voter participation, and the number of UOCAVA ballots that were returned, the report is unsatisfying because of the problems the EAC encountered in trying to collect the information needed to account for UOCAVA voter participation in the 2004 presidential election. Due to a variety of issues (which I’ll discussion in more detail below), the EAC was unable to compile the necessary information that would tell us the number of UOCAVA voters who requested absentee ballots, the number of those ballots that were returned, and the number that were then counted — basic facts about election administration that should be reported to the public, but which have not been, even with the EAC efforts to collect and distribute this information.

The difficulty that the EAC faces in trying to collect and distribute this basic data about the democratic process in the United States demonstrates how much work needs to be done on data collection and distribution practices by election officials.

Turning specifically to the report, in it the EAC details the methodology used and the survey that was distributed to state election officials. But:

  1. Some states failed to respond to the requests for information, or to requests for additional information.
  2. Some states altered the information they reported, and it is unclear what the altered information reflects (incorrect original information, or estimates based on new data).
  3. Some states are unable to break UOCAVA voters from their abstentee voting totals, thus reporting to the EAC not the UOCAVA participation rates, but the total absentee voting rates.

The last problem is serious, and unfortunately in the report I cannot find any reference to which states are providing total abstentee voting estimates and not UOCAVA voting estimates.

Based on the information provided in the report, it appears that about 1.1 million UOCAVA abstentee ballots were requested in 2004, and about 840,000 were returned (it is unclear how precise this estimate may be, given the problems of data reporting listed above). Once we eliminate the reported 62,468 UOCAVA absentee ballot requests from the calculation from California (California reported UOCAVA absentee requests but not the returns), we get an estimate of about 81% for UOCAVA absentee ballot returns.

But as we really don’t know here which states reported total absentee numbers, nor for those states the UOCAVA absentee ballot request or return rate, we do have to keep in mind that these are estimates, and that they are likely to be biased (though the direction and magnitude of the bias is unknown).

Yet the bottom line here is how difficult it is for the EAC (and by implication researchers and the interested public) to get detailed post-election information about even basic questions, like the participation rates of this special class of voters. Groups like the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project have called for better quality data (see the October 2004 report, “Insuring the Integrity of the Electoral Process: Recommendations for Consistent and Complete Reporting of Election Data”), and the EAC has tried to collect and distribute information in response to these calls (see the EAC Election Day Survey, as well as our thoughts about how much further we have to go to get the necessary data to really understand the election process and how it performs in the United States [“EAC Election Day Survey underscores need for better retention, collection and distribution practices”]).

At this point, time is short to work with election officials to improve the information they collect and distribute to the public. Many states will be having complex primary elections very soon, and the November elections are really just months off. Perhaps the EAC can provide some guidance or guidelines for election officials about what information they should collect and distribute; or perhaps some of the other entities that assist election administrators could step up and help provide some guidance and assistance for improving collection, reporting and distribution of detailed election administration data.