VoteCastr’s mixed record on election day providing useful information about turnout and the emerging vote totals in real time are now getting scrutiny from the press, including from its partner, Slate. I was not involved in the development of VoteCastr, so I don’t have much to say about its difficulties in getting the numbers right. However, I do have one direct anecdote of the VoteCastr operation, based on my observation work on Election, and a few reflections based on that experience.
The anecdote: I spent election day travelling around Franklin and Delaware Counties in Ohio. (That’s Columbus and the northern suburbs.) I visited about 10 voting locations overall which accounted for something like 30 precincts. At the first voting location I visited, a union hall on the west side of Columbus, I watched for an hour as the hard-pressed workers did their best to whittle down the line of 100 voters who had greeted them when the polls opened at 6:30. (By the end of the hour the line had grown, owing to the painfully slow work of the poll worker handling check-ins for last names ending in S-Z, but that’s another issue.)
At about 7:15, a young woman carrying an over-stuff backpack on which a VoteCastr badge had been affixed came in looking for the polling place manager. She and he talked for a couple of minutes right next to where I was standing, so I listened in. This was the dialogue, played out in a space the size of a large living room, stuffed full of voting equipment, folding tables, and about 30 people at any one time:
- VoteCastr person: I’m from VoteCastr. I’m here to gather information about the number of people turning out to vote each hour. How can I get that information?
- Manager: (Looking at the table where they are checking in voters using paper poll books): I would love to help you, but I don’t know how we would do that. We’d have to stop all operations and count up the number of signatures on all the poll books to get that.
- VoteCastr person: But, don’t you have a list of people who have voted attached to the wall over there? (Pointing to a list of voters tacked to the wall.)
- Manager: Those are people who had previously voted absentee or early. We don’t post the names of voters in real time. We do issue reports back to the county a couple of times during the day about the number of people who voted, based on machine use.
- VoteCastr person: Could you get the count from looking at the machines more frequently than that?
- Manager: Maybe I could, but it would take one of my busy people several minutes to do that and, as you can see, we can’t spare anyone right now.
- VoteCastr person: Is there any other way you can think of that I could get the information?
- Manager: You’re welcome to count people as they come in the door. I’m afraid that’s the only way you’re going to get the information you need on an hourly basis.
I can’t vouch for the empirical claims made by the manager or the VoteCastr person, but the manager seemed like an accommodating fellow (and amazingly poised) and the VoteCastr person was very professional and polite. My conclusion was that they were honestly trying to make this work, but there was no easy solution.
The observation: If the turnout reporting was so important to the VoteCastr model, why was it sending one of its data-gatherers into a precinct an hour after polls had opened with no idea about how the data and check-in processed worked? This was either an example of poor training, poor advance knowledge among leadership about how Franklin County elections are administered, poor cooperation with local officials, or a combination of all three.
It brings to mind the work I have done for the past four years to gather precinct-level data about polling practices, for my own research and to provide advice to election officials. One thing I’ve learned is that when you go into a precinct wanting to get data in the rush of an election, you over-prepare and you plan for each county, and indeed each precinct, to operate differently. From what I observed, it appeared that the VoteCastr folks assumed that Franklin County had electronic poll books, like neighboring Delaware County. With EPBs, there was a decent chance that hourly data could have been obtained. With paper poll books, not so much.
I’m intrigued by VoteCastr and wish them well as they work out their business model. One thing going against them — and everyone else in this space — is that presidential elections only come around every four years. That’s bad for two reasons.
First, it’s hard raising funds and organizing a business (or a research project) during the 3.5 years before the next presidential election, because no one is thinking about it. The right thing to do would be to be conducting endless trial runs on low-turnout elections, to work out the kinks and to gain the trust of election officials who, after all, are the gatekeepers to the precincts.
Second, presidential elections are qualitatively differently from all other elections. The surge in activity is so much greater than even midterm congressional elections that you don’t know if you have it right until the onslaught hits; if you make mistakes, it’s an eternity until you know if you’ve make the right corrections. This is a lesson known by election officials for decades, and now it’s a lesson being learned by the new data companies being formed to make sense of elections.