Author Archives: cstewart

What to Make of President Trump’s Tweets?

Charles Stewart III

President Trump is apparently exercised that some states, especially battleground states, might be mailing absentee ballot applications to all their voters, so that they can request a mail ballot be sent to them. In fairness to the president, many of these states are new to the large-scale mail-ballot game, and have been struggling to keep up with demand.

But, notice the problem. He is angry at states for nudging their registered voters to take advantage of their absentee voting laws, and yet calls absentee voting good, because it involves an application.

Where do they mail ballots to all residents, which the president apparently hates? In five states, none of which is a battleground state, and each of which has a reputation for clean elections. In fairness, two of these, Hawaii and Utah, are new to the mail-ballot party in 2020. But say what you want about 100% mail balloting, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have not been beset with nonstop election-fraud allegations since they adopted their systems.

Not only that, but some of the most prominent proponents of mail balloting in these western states have been Republicans. These include Sam Reed, the three-term Washington Secretary of State who ushered in that’s state’s adoption of all-mail balloting. Republican Kim Wyman has vigorously defended the system since she succeeded Reed. Since losing his 2018 re-election fight in Colorado, former-Secretary of State Wayne Williams has been defending his state’s system against all comers.

What is going on here? It’s obvious. For some reason, President Trump (and many national Republican leaders generally) have gotten it in their heads that Democrats are inherently advantaged by mail balloting. In fairness, I think that Democrats believe this, too. Both are wrong. Nonetheless, bowing to conventional wisdom, from a strategic perspective, he believes that mail balloting needs to be limited.

But, the logic doesn’t work, even if you twist it in Escherian ways.

The problem, of course, is that President Trump himself votes by mail, as does his family. The distinction, as I understand it, is that he has requested the ballots; the ballots haven’t been mailed to him automatically.

Yet, this is precisely what is happening—or might happen—in the battleground states he seems so worried about.

What President Trump is railing about it not happening—or at least not in the states that will decide his political future.

One final thing. Despite the fact that President Trump says he votes absentee, that’s not what the State of Florida—where he is registered—says he is doing. Florida changed its election code several years ago, getting rid of the term “absentee balloting,” replacing it with the term “vote-by-mail.”

There is plenty to do to prepare for the upcoming election. Getting mail ballots to the right people and protecting in-person polling place is where attention to should be paid right now. All of us need to avoid the chaos and keep to the serious work.

Oh.  One last thing.  Most of the news today has focused on the last line of the President’s tweet, asking about whether we should postpone the election.  That’s such a ridiculous idea, and so easily debunked on a bipartisan basis (as it has been), that I don’t think it deserves any more comment than what I’ve just given it.

Nine Thoughts about Lost Votes by Mail

By Charles Stewart III

A “lost vote” occurs when a voter does all that is asked of her, and yet her vote is uncounted in the final tally. Estimating the magnitude of lost votes in American presidential elections has followed the work of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP), which initially estimated the magnitude of lost votes in the 2000 presidential election—due to failures of voter registration, polling-place management, and voting technologies—to be between 4 and 6 million out of 107 million cast that year.

Because of data and conceptual limitations, lost vote estimates have tended to focus on in-person voting, ignoring lost votes due to mail ballots. In a paper I recently finished, I revisited an article I wrote in 2010 that attempted to fill the hole in our understanding of lost votes, by considering mail votes in the 2008 election. That paper estimated that as many as 22% of mail ballots were “lost”—as defined by the VTP—in that election. Despite the fact that I opined in the article that this was clearly an over-estimate, this 22% statistic has been repeated without the caveats that appear in the article. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.)

Over the past decade, it has been suggested that I should reconsider that earlier article, for two reasons. First, mail balloting has become much more complicated, with states adopting a variety of approaches to mail balloting. Each approach, from excuse-required absentee balloting to vote-by-mail, creates unique risks for and protections against lost votes. I owe it to the evolving policy to align my thinking with the new reality. Second, the data have become better than they were in 2010. A reconsideration should reflect that new data.

I encourage you to take a look at a draft of the paper, which is slated to be published in the Harvard Data Science Review before the election. Below are the take-aways from the article, as a preview.

  1. “Lost vote” is a term of art that draws our attention to the gap between a voter’s intention to vote—in this case by mail—and the completion of the intention. In no way does it refer to ballots that have been physically lost, in the literal sense that there are millions of ballots sitting in a trash heap somewhere.
  2. The number of lost mail votes in 2016 was more like 4% of mail ballots, not 22%. The principal source was rejected ballots, which has garnered plenty of attention in the 2020 primaries, for instance, because they arrived late. The next-largest cause was a heightened residual vote rate, that is, over- and undervotes. The smallest contributor, which is also the most difficult to estimate, is problems with the postal service and the non-delivery of requested ballots.
  3. The states that have the most expansive vote-by-mail laws have the lowest lost-vote rates. This is because no requests for absentee ballots are lost in the mail in these states and because vote-by-mail states reject a much smaller fraction of returned mail ballots than states that require voters to explicitly request them.
  4. Conversely, states that require voters to request absentee ballots have higher lost-vote rates, mostly because these states are more likely to reject them when received.
  5. The fact that 22% of the ballots that were mailed to voters in the vote-by-mail states in 2016 were not returned for counting is due almost entirely to voter abstention, nothing more.
  6. The biggest empirical puzzle remains why 7% of voters in excuse-required states and 14% of voters in no-excuse states who requested a mail ballot never returned one. If 99.5% of the mail gets delivered within the window of postal service standards, this can’t be because ballots are getting lost by the USPS. But, these percentages seem too high to be explained simply by ballot requesters getting cold feet.
  7. The states that will expand the use of mail ballots the most in 2020 will be among those with the greatest ballot-rejection rates in 2016. New York’s 2016 rejection rate was over 10%, which is entirely consistent with reports currently coming out of the state from the primary.
  8. One sign of hope is that the heightened scrutiny of mail ballot rejections, including some court-case settlements, may keep rejection rates in check in November. Georgia is a good example. In 2016, its mail-ballot rejection rate was 6.9%. In the recent primary, it was closer to 1%.
  9. Voting by mail is risky.  So is voting in person, especially in the age of COVID-19.  The risks are of a different nature.  It is the responsibility of election officials to try and minimize voting risks as much as they can.  It is the responsibility of voters to weigh the risks of voting, and to vote using the mode they feel the most comfortable with.

Mail Ballot Watch

By Charles Stewart III

The MIT branch of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project has started a time series to follow the fraction of ballots cast by mail in the primaries.  We will be updating on a regular basis and posting the graph to Twitter and here.  Here is the most recent graph, as of July 6, 2020.  Please let me know if you find any errors, have questions, or have leads on data.  Below the graph are some notes on data sources.

About data sources:  In general, we relied on the official state election returns or other state records (such as voter files) to record the data.  The following are exceptions:

  • Texas.  In 2016, the state did not report percentage of votes cast by mail, although some counties did.  The data for 2016 and 2020 reflect the percentage of votes cast by mail in the counties that reported the data in 2016.
  • Arizona.  Data are only from Maricopa County, which constitutes 61% of the state’s population.  
  • Pennsylvania.  Data from 2016 are general election rates, taken from the Election Administration and Voting Survey.

The following states are excluded because they held caucuses in 2016:  Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Utah, North Dakota, Alaska, Kansas, and Hawaii.

States that are normally all-mail are excluded.

Vermont is excluded because 2016 data are unavailable.

The other states not on the graph, but which have held primaries, await the release of data from the state.

Five Wisconsin Take-Aways

By Charles Stewart III, MIT

The following is a list of take-aways from the Wisconsin primary. I will be elaborating on these points in the following days, but I wanted to get these down before the day got too far out of hand.

  1. It is possible to rapidly expand vote-by-mail even when you’re not prepared for it, but don’t try this at home. The state was in about as bad a bind as one could imagine—a shifting, uncertain health crisis, conflicting court decisions, a deadlocked state election commission, a history of little vote-by-mail, and the most decentralized election administration system in the nation. And yet, 1.1 million mail ballots were received in time to be counted—a record for any election in the history of Wisconsin.
  2. In-person voting is still necessary. The collapse of in-person voting in Green Bay (Brown County) and Milwaukee City (Milwaukee County)—and perhaps in other municipalities, as well—had a measurable effect on turnout. A simple statistical model suggests that Milwaukee County came in 19,000 votes below expected, Green Bay at 10,000 votes below expectations.
  3. The first act of the primary is an amazingly good start, but it doesn’t mean we are out of the woods yet. We do not know yet how many absentee ballots were rejected because they arrived too late, or because of other infirmities.
  4. A surprisingly good primary does not guarantee a surprisingly good general election. The electorate in a general election is different from the primary election. It’s less experienced and has more difficulties at the polls. It will be less capable of jumping through the hoops to get ballots, and it will be more reliant on election-day registration to be able to vote in the first place. The primary is a good start, but it’s just a start.
  5. Wisconsin’s electoral landscape is shifting. First, even with the difficulties, turnout was well above what a statistical model would have predicted, given the lack of a challenger in one party and the un-competitiveness in the other. Second, the shift in votes that gave rise to the liberal’s victory in the supreme court race—a proxy for partisan politics more broadly—show a pull-back in support for conservative politicians in suburban Milwaukee counties, in counties of the Twin-City exurbs, and in the small “Obama-Trump” counties throughout the state.

What “Should” We Expect Turnout to Be in Wisconsin?

By Charles Stewart III, MIT

While we wait for the election results to be released later tonight, it would be useful to predict a priori what we would expect turnout to end up being. With an expectation established, based on past voting patterns in Wisconsin, it will be easier to assess how the unusual circumstances surrounding the primary may have affected turnout and the vote shares for candidates.

The exercise here is entirely empirical. There are too few data points—18 in all—to build an elaborate model. The main explanatory variable I will explore is the competitiveness of the presidential nomination fight.


A simple two-variable model of turnout

To start, I look at turnout in the presidential preference primary from 1948 to 2016, as a percentage of the voting-age population. Turnout is taken from the Wisconsin Elections Commission website, as is voting-age population, with the exception of 2012 and 2016, which I got from Michael McDonald’s United States Elections Project website.

There are two notable patterns in the accompanying figure. (Click on any of the figures in this post to enbiggen.)  First, there is a steep drop in turnout between the 1980 and 1984 primary.  I’m not certain what caused this—it’s not due to the passage of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, because that took effect with the 1972 election.

It has been suggested to me (thanks, Barry Burden) that prior to 1980, Wisconsin was typically early in the primary season, compared to other states, and thus a much more significant event in the hunt for the nomination. In any event, it is clear that 1984 and onward constituted a different turnout regime than the pre-1984 period. Whether the years prior to 1960 properly belongs to an even different period is an interesting question, but isn’t obviously relevant to the exercise of creating an expectation for turnout in 2020.

The exception to this simple periodization is 2016, where the turnout level of 47% was nearly twenty points higher than the average of the 1984 – 2012 period (29%). I will return to this point below.

The second pattern in the time series is the increase in turnout in years when the incumbent was not running for president, in other words, was precluded by the constitution from running for a third term. (Open-seat years are indicated with the open circles in the graph.) With the exception of 2000, the existence of a presidential open seat is associated with an increase in turnout in the primary, compared to the prior presidential election year. (And, one could possible even argue that Al Gore’s candidacy as Bill Clinton’s heir in 2000 meant that Gore was considered to be the de facto incumbent in the Democratic primary that year.)

The mechanism here is clear. With an incumbent president running for reelection, the in-party’s primary battle is typically subdued compared to the out-party’s. Absent another reason to come to the polls, the in-party’s partisans are likely to stay away to come degree. Conversely, in years where the incumbent cannot run for reelection, both parties tend to have hard-fought contests, drawing voters from both parties to the polls.

For starters, then, this suggests a simple regression model, where the dependent variable is turnout as a percentage of VAP and the independent variables are two dummy variables indicating (1) whether the year is 1984 or after and (2) whether the incumbent president is term-limited from running again. The results are in the accompanying table.

This allows for a simple prediction for 2020. With Trump not term-limited out, we would expect turnout in 2020 to be 40.6 – 13.2 = 27.4 percent of voting-age population. With VAP at 4,573,223, this works out to 1,253,063.

Adding competition

There is something unsatisfactory with models that rely solely on dummy variables, especially dummy variables demarking time periods, because they essentially say that nothing changes during the period in question, beyond random noise. Further examination of the graph above suggests there may be another dynamic at work, beyond whether the president is term-limited out, and that is the actual competitiveness of the races at hand.

For instance, in the post-war period, there were three elections in which both parties had hot nomination contests when the primary rolled around to Wisconsin—1980, which featured Kennedy and Carter duking it out on the Democratic side and Reagan and Bush locked in a tight race on the Republican side; 2008, with Clinton v. Obama and McCain v. Hckabee; and 2016, with Clinton v. Sanders and Cruz v. Trump and Kasich.

We can extend the previous regression model by adding the “effective number of candidates” measure to the mix. (See the end of this post to see a discussion of the effective number of candidates measure.  In this case, I add the effective number of candidates in the two parties to create a unified variable. I do this to preserve degrees of freedom.)

Doing so reveals the results in the accompanying table.

With the 2020 Republican primary uncontested and the Democratic primary down to two candidates, one of whom was already the presumptive nominee by primary day, the effective number of candidates for the 2020 primary was already among the lowest in the time series. In the best of cases, if Biden and Sanders tie, the effective number of candidates across the two parties would be precisely three—one for the Republicans plus two for the Democrats. As the following graph shows, the 2020 primary will likely be the least competitive Wisconsin presidential primary, considering the two parties together, since 1964.

 

To make a prediction from the regression model model, we have to estimate the results of the Democratic primary, while simplifying things by setting the effective number of Republican candidates to 1, ignoring scattering votes on the Republican side. The following table shows the range of estimates, varying the percentage of the vote for Biden from 30% to 70%, ignoring the vote for the other candidates.


The high-end estimate, with a Biden-Sanders tie, is 23.9% of VAP, four points below what we predict without taking the non-competitive nature of the primary into account.

What about the 2016 outlier?

The one thing that makes me uneasy about these predictions is the 2016 primary turnout of 47%, the highest since 1980. Several commentators have suggested that 2016 had an especially high turnout because of the fiercely fought race for Wisconsin Supreme Court, between the liberal JoAnne Kloppenburg and the conservative Rebecca Bradley. (Wisconsin’s supreme court elections are non-partisan.) With the recent escalation of partisan rancor in the state, much of which has focused on Supreme Court decisions, the explanation for the turnout surge in 2016 could rest on the Supreme Court race, not the presidential primary.

The fact that 2016 is truly an outlier is reinforced when we generate predicted values from the two regressions conducted above. The accompanying graph shows the actual time series, along with the two sets of predicted values from the regressions above. The 2016 values are 12 points greater than either regression would have predicted. This is similar in magnitude to the other outlier, 2000, where turnout was 13 points below what the model predicted.

On the issue of state supreme court races providing a turbo-boost to turnout in Wisconsin in general: if it did in 2016, it was the first time ever, at least in the post-war era. When I add variables intended to gauge the presence of contested supreme court races to the regression models above, nothing comes close to statistical significance. For instance, not all years have a supreme court race on the ballot. Adding a variable to account for supreme court races on the ballot along with the presidential primary adds nothing to the explanatory power of the two regression models, nor does adding a variable measuring how closely contested the supreme court race was.

The question, then, is whether 2016 was a true outlier, as was 2000, or whether 2016 ushered in a new partisan era. If it did, then we would expect turnout in 2020 to be about 15 points above what was predicted in the two regressions above. That is, we would expect turnout to be in the range of 1.8 and 1.9 million voters, depending on which regression model above is preferred. My political scientist training makes me skeptical about declaring new eras based on a single election, and so I would not expect turnout in 2020 to be nearly this high. Of course, with the confusion surrounding the primary, we may not know what the “new normal” is until 2024.

A conclusion (of sorts)

As of this writing, 1.1 million absentee ballots have been returned for counting. This guarantees that turnout based on absentee ballots alone with be in the ballpark of the predictions from the two regression models reviewed here. We still don’t know what total turnout is, because municipal clerks have hewed closely to the U.S. District Court order not to release any election results until Monday evening.

The Milwaukee City clerk has reported that about 20,000 voters cast ballots in person, anticipating that around 80,000 absentee ballots would eventually be returned. If these percentages hold for the whole state, then we’d anticipate for turnout to be around 1.4 million. Of course, Milwaukee’s in-person voting on Election Day was seriously hampered by the closing of over 90% of its Election Day precincts. I would expect that Wisconsin overall will see something less than 80% of its ballots cast by mail. If so, then turnout will be well above 1.4 million.

Either way, it seems reasonable to expect at this point that turnout will exceed what we should have expected, given the recent history of primaries in the state. Some may say that we should have expected much greater turnout, given the nature of the supreme court race also on the ballot, but one (or two) data points is a thin reed to hang such expectations on.

In any event, the fact that Wisconsin will likely see a much larger turnout for an uncompetitive presidential primary in the midst of a frightening pandemic says a lot about the persistence of the state’s voters and election workers, as it also says a lot about the likely level of turnout in November, when the obstacles to getting to the polls will (one hopes) not be so great.

Epilogue:  The “Effective Number of Candidates” Measure

The “effective number of candidates” measure is analogous to the “effective number of parties” measure used in electoral studies to study the number of political parties in a system.  Essentially, the effective number of candidates measure gauges how many candidates were on the ballot, weighting each candidate by the number of votes each received.  If two candidates receive equal votes, the effective number of candidates is 2.0.  If one candidate receives 90% and the other 10%, the effective number of candidates is 1.2.  For the Democrats, the effective number of candidates was 1.5 when the incumbent Democrat was running for reelection, 1.8 when the seat was open, and 2.9 when a Republican was running for reelection.  For the Republicans, the effective number of candidates was 1.3 when the incumbent Republican was running for reelection, 2.0 when the seat was open, and 2.5 when the Democrat was running for reelection.

Will Expanded Early Voting Help with Social Distancing? Maybe Not

By Charles Stewart III, MIT

The most promising solution to instill physical distancing in elections during the current COVID-19 crisis is increasing the availability of vote-by-mail options. Another suggested strategy has been increased early voting. The idea behind both is to “dedensify” polling places. While moving people to voting by mail will certainly do this, it’s unclear that more early voting will.

Whether early voting is part of the solution depends on whether early voting locations are less densely populated than Election Day polling places. From my initial look at the data, they may not be—although a lot more work needs to be done to know for sure.

For starters, I looked at the wonderful data available from the North Carolina State Board of Elections’ ftp site. From the data there, I could find out how many people voted in 2016 at every early voting site in the state, and the day when they voted. I was able to match that information with other data on the site that reported the hours when these early voting sites were open. From that, I could calculate the average number of early voters in each site on each day.

In addition, I was also able to use the voter history file to calculate the number of people who voted in-person on Election Day at each precinct.

The accompanying figure illustrates the results. (Click on this and the other graphs to enbiggen.)  Throughout the early voting period in 2016, the average number of voters in each polling place was in the 60-to-75 range. This contrasts with Election Day, when the average was 41.

Thus, simply shifting Election Day voters to early voting, at least in North Carolina, is not an obvious strategy. In fact, in a state like North Carolina, the move to early voting would seem to benefit early voters even more than Election Day voters.

I must quickly add some caveats before moving on. First, North Carolina may not be representative. In 2016, 61 percent of voters cast ballots early, through what they call “One-Stop Absentee Voting;” 35 percent of votes were cast on Election Day, with the remaining 4 percent being cast by mail. Thus, the early voting sites may already be congested, which is unlikely to be the case in most states. Still, in 2016, early voting was the dominant mode in seven or eight states, North Carolina included. The analysis here may be the most relevant to these.

Second, this analysis assumes nothing else changes, other than shifting people from Election Day to early voting. For instance, it assumes no more early voting sites are created. Obviously, if more early voting sites were created and voters used them, density in these sites could drop.

In addition, I haven’t compared the actual rooms and buildings that house early voting sites and precincts. This is clearly one example of how particular facts are important. If the alternative is between a cramped church basement on Election Day or a large community center multi-purpose room for early voting, the multi-purpose room can probably handle an equal volume of voters more safely than the basement. The list of early voting sites in North Carolina includes all sorts of locations, most of which seem pretty similar to locations that are used for Election Day voting, as well.

Finally, this analysis hasn’t taken a look at the variability of voter density during particular times of the day. This, of course, is critical, for implementing safe physical distancing practices. We know from the research I have helped the Bipartisan Policy Center conduct and the academic research I have been a part of that there’s a crunch of voters on Election Day when the polls open. Referring back to the North Carolina graph, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the average polling place in North Carolina handled 80 voters per hour in the first hour of Election Day voting, before falling to an average of 30-35 the rest of the day.

Less observational research has been done of early voting sites. The survey research I have done suggests that arrival rates at early voting sites are spread more evenly across the day than on Election Day. The accompanying graph, which is taken from the 2016 report on wait times published by the BPC, shows average wait times at various times of the day, taking the nation as a whole. The good news is that there is not a beginning-of-the-day rush with early voting, over all. The bad news is that if there is congestion, it lasts all day long.

I end with one last figure, which shows the average number of voters who went through each early voting site among 23 states in 2016. The data are from the EAC’s Election Administration and Voting Survey. The states displayed are those that reported sufficient data to calculate meaningful statistics. (This means, for instance, that Texas, a state with a lot of early voting is excluded, because a lot of Texas counties did not report how many people voted early.)

As with the North Carolina analysis, this is a rough first cut at getting a sense about where the most congested early voting sites might be. It’s rough, most obviously, because it doesn’t take into account how many days of early voting there are in the states, nor how many hours the individual sites were open. And, of course, it does not consider the variability in early vote center locations.

Also, some of the states with a highest early-voter-to-early-voting-site ratios are those without a lot of early voting, measured by the percentage of voters who use it. This looks to be true, for instance of Hawaii , Maryland, and D.C.

Nonetheless, as a first cut, it shows that the strategy of shifting more people to early voting in Minnesota or Massachusetts may be potentially more promising than doing so in Maryland or Washington, DC.

Analysis like this is no substitute for the detailed analysis that states and localities will be undertaking in the coming weeks, as they consider whether expanding early voting is right for them—and if it is right, how to do it.

It should serve as a cautionary note for the public and policymakers, however, as they clamor for “obvious” solutions to the problem of voting in the age of COVID-19. Nothing is obvious in this business. It’s all about the details. That’s why coming up with solutions that protect the 2020 election while protecting our health will take so much effort.

Thoughts on the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NBEBA) and the ACCESS Act

By Charles Stewart III, MIT

Things are moving fast on Capitol Hill regarding emergency stimulus funding and its relationship to making the 2020 election safe in the midst of the coronavirus emergency.

Here are some thoughts about the two major pieces of legislation that have been proposed on this subject, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 (DEBA) in the Senate and the ACCESS Act in the House. (The ACCESS Act is part of Nancy’s Pelosi’s broader “Take Responsibility for Workers and Family Act.”) Both are similar—in some cases, identical.

To discipline things, I have organized my thoughts along the lines of the ten steps that Nate Persily and I proposed in the Lawfare Blog last week on the needed response of the nation in light of the medical crisis. These comments are mine alone, not Nate’s. Each heading is one of the ten steps. The text that follows is commentary.

  1. The United States must plan for a significant shift to mail balloting for the 2020 election. This legislation provides one model for nudging states toward a significant shift in offering mail balloting. The biggest shift would come for states that currently require an excuse to receive an absentee ballot, which numbers seventeen in all. In 2016, eight states saw fewer than 5% of ballots cast by mail. By mandating that states, at the very least, move to a “no-excuse” regime, there will undoubtedly be more mail balloting in 2020. How much more will depend on the receptiveness of voters and the urgency of the situation come next fall.
  2. The nation must commit to supporting the logistical effort necessary to conduct mail elections with integrity and efficiency. These bills won’t, by themselves, create the logistical infrastructure necessary to conduct mail elections with integrity and efficiency. As we specify in the Lawfare article, voting by mail is complex. In the states that have expanded it the most, they have done so over several election cycles, fine-tuning the process as time went along. Certainly, money will be necessary to finance any expansion of voting by mail. What is more critical is the expansion of management capacity to match.
  3. Any efforts to expand voting by mail in time for the November election must appreciate the partisan polarization surrounding changes in election rules. To state the obvious, no Republicans have signed onto these efforts, which doom them from the start, at least as written. This is not to say that they’re a waste of time. Certainly, they provide a starting point for bargaining and for signaling to allied groups that the Democratic Party is committed to these issues. (On this point, the absence of a highly visible congressional Republican plan to address the election emergency is telling.)  However, it must be recognized that all the energy around the House and Senate efforts has created a Republican backlash in Congress that is making it more difficult to support measures that Republicans might otherwise support, such as providing funds to states to pursue the strategies they feel the most comfortable with, without federal prescriptions. In that context, the recent op-ed piece by Michael Steele and Eli Lehrer in the Washington Times encouraging conservatives to get behind expanded vote-by-mail in November is heartening.
  4. States should approach this situation as an emergency, not as an opportunity to make long-term changes to election policy. This is another dimension on which the House and Senate efforts run contrary to the recommendations Nate and I made in the Lawfare post. Both the House and Senate efforts mandate that states make permanent changes to their election laws, and to make long-term investments in technologies. As we note in our post, Florida and New Jersey have previously interpreted state laws flexibly in the face of hurricanes bearing down on them as elections were being conducted, only to return to the status quo after the emergency had passed. Citizens understand extraordinary actions taken in extraordinary situations. To push a major permanent policy shift under the guise of an emergency will be viewed suspiciously by a large segment of the population, and certainly by the political class.
  5. States need to reconsider the division of labor between state and local authorities in the conduct of elections. It is not clear that these efforts address the state-local balance of responsibility directly, nor should they necessarily. However, assuming that most states will be spending the next few months planning how to ramp-up mail-ballot operations quickly, it makes sense to imagine that states will bear greater responsibility for certain new logistical burdens, even in states with strong traditions of local control of elections.
  6. Election officials need to be working with the Postal Service immediately to ensure a smooth transition to expanded mail balloting. These efforts do not address the Postal Service directly, other than provide a vehicle for diverting more business its way—which is a good thing. We all know the USPS has its struggles. Nonetheless, it views its role in conveying ballots with pride. The detail here is that local USPS operations and election officials in states that have had low vote-by-mail volume will now need to create working relationships that have taken years to establish in vote-by-mail states. As with all things related to voting by mail, it takes a while to develop these working relationships. We have to anticipate that there will be local bumps in the road.
  7. States need to communicate clearly to voters how mail ballots will be distributed, and develop plans such that ballots actually get to the voters intended. The House bill requires states to provide systems so that voters can request mail ballots online, and then track then electronically. This is good public policy. I doubt, however, that states without these capacities already will be able to develop them in time for November, unless they are already working to create this capacity. In the past, hastily developed electronic request systems have created security vulnerabilities. And, in general, ballot-tracking systems have taken years, not months, to develop. The harder we push everyone to vote by mail this November, the more we will have to plan for the fact that some voters will not get their ballots mailed to them.
  8. In-person voting won’t go away. This is where I believe the House and Senate efforts fall the shortest. Yes, we need to push more people to vote by mail, on an emergency basis, to protect public health and ensure that the November election will proceed on schedule. Still, there are a lot of reasons to believe that in-person voting will continue to be the dominant mode of voting in 2020, especially when we combine Election-Day and early voting. Other than a general requirement that states develop emergency plans for conducting elections during health emergencies, I don’t read anything in these efforts that particularly target in-person voting.
  9. Election officials need to communicate with the public to address the anxiety that is likely to attend the counting of votes. It is probably too much to ask any legislation considered by Congress to address this point.
  10. Adjustments to voting rules must respect behavioral regularities that voters have demonstrated over the years, and are unlikely to change, even in the midst of a public health crisis. This is tied to point # 8. We have to assume that tens of millions of people will choose to vote in person in November 2020. Legislation that focuses on moving voters to mail balloting doesn’t directly address this fact, other than to reduce the number of in-person voters, which can’t be dismissed. That’s not a trivial thing, but it is important to devote attention to organizing in-person voting to safely accommodate everyone who wishes to vote that way. Furthermore, we have to assume that most voters will not pay attention to COVID-19-avoidance measures for the election until sometime late in October. Again, it is probably too much to ask a single bill to focus on all aspects of the public health emergency, but it is telling that the House and Senate efforts sidestep the significant challenges to public education that face election officials in 2020.

Overall, the House and Senate efforts have received a lot of press attention, but must be understood as a Democratic plan for the 2020 elections, not as a blueprint for a bipartisan solution for the emergency at hand. Even though I agree with the aims of much of the legislation, I suspect that the effort to push a policy agenda so closely allied with Democratic orthodoxy talking point creates a bump in the road toward negotiating the final bailout package. Leaving my reservations aside, the presence of a Republican majority in the Senate and a potential presidential veto make these legislative efforts dead letters, at least in this Congress.

This doesn’t mean they are dead letters in the long term, though. We should remember that an early version of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) was passed by a Democratic Congress in 1991, only to be vetoed by President George H.W. Bush. Despite losing the battle, Democrats tried again in 1993, following the election of Bill Clinton, who signed the NVRA into law.

In the world we live in now, I hope the position-taking among congressional Democrats, to stake out a long-term position about election reform, does not undermine the immediate, pressing issue, which is to give election officials the support they need now, to get done what needs to be done to assure the November 2020 election goes off as planned.

Some Demographics on Voting by Mail

By Charles Stewart III, MIT

With the sudden surge of interest in mail balloting because of the COVID-19 emergency, there’s also been some interest in questions about who tends to use mail ballots now and who would like to use mail ballots. Here is provide some basic demographics related to the question. Because there’s so much going on right now, I won’t provide much commentary, allowing the numbers to “speak for themselves,” which is rarely a good idea.

The tables here address the following questions:

  1.  Who voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election, by salient demographics (i.e., age, race, education, income, partisanship)?
  2. Who supports expanded voting by mail?
  3. How do people return mail ballots?

The data about the usage of mail ballots and demographics mostly comes from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). Information about support for running elections entirely by mail and the return of mail ballots comes from the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE); I also used the SPAE for information related to the use of mail ballots by people with disabilities.

Patterns of mail-ballot usage and support for mail balloting need to be mindful of the fact that states organize mail balloting differently. Relying on the coding first suggested by the National Conference on State Legislatures, I divide states into four regimes: (1) excuse required for an absentee ballot, (2) no excuse required for an absentee ballot, (3) permanent mail ballot list, and (4) complete vote by mail (or “vote at home”). The following tables maintain this distinction.

Here are the take-aways:

  1. There is very little demographic difference in the use of mail ballots.
  2. The one exception is related to age, where voters older than 65 are more likely to use them than younger voters. (Note that some states, even those that generally require an excuse to vote absentee, allow older voters to vote by mail without an excuse.)
  3. The lack of a major difference between demographic groups is contrary to some claims I have been hearing (and some I believed myself before running the numbers).
  4. Contrary to the claims of some, African Americans appear to be slightly more supportive of vote-by-mail reforms than whites.
  5. Despite being the demographic most likely to take advantage of voting by mail, the age group most in opposition to expanded voting by mail are those 65 and older.  The relationship is strongest in non-vote-by-mail states.
  6. Voters in vote-by-mail states who return their mail ballots in person are more confident their votes were counted than those who mailed them back.
  7. Mail voters in vote-by-mail states are more confident their vote was counted as cast than mail voters in other states.
  8. There is still a substantial fraction of voters in vote-by-mail states that believe that all elections should not be held by mail.

Demographics and the use of mail ballots in 2016.

The following tables report the percentage of voters who report that they voted by mail in 2016. Responses are limited to those whose participation in the election was verified by matching to voter lists. Data source: CCES, unless otherwise noted.

 

Support for holding all elections by mail

The following tables report the percentage of respondents who stated that they supported “holding all elections by mail.” (Source:  SPAE)

 

Return of mail ballots

The following tables report the method of return of mail ballots, along with the relationship between the method of return and confidence that one’s ballot was counted as cast. (Source: SPAE)

Seven Thoughts on Voting in Age of Covid-19

The following is a series of thoughts about the response of the election community in light of the unfolding health emergency. These thoughts are current as of the moment they are written—Monday morning, March 16, 2020—and will no doubt change as the situation evolves.

1. The election must go on. If we want a government headed by elected officials, we have to elect them. There may be opportunities for delaying primary elections, but the date of the November general election is hard-wired, through statute and the constitution. That’s a hard constraint around which we must design a response.

2. Responses to the crisis must be based on the best scientific evidence we have. Evidence about the public health crisis is grounded in medical science, obviously, and we all will be learning from medical and other scientific experts about how to protect ourselves. There is evidence from the social sciences (including management science) that can also be used to inform best practices that are consistent with best medical practice.

3. Confidence in the election must be maintained as accommodations are made. The research suggests that three major factors affect voter confidence: (1) whether your favored candidate won the election, (2) whether you had a good experience when you voted, and (3) whether a major election practice is new. Election administrators can’t (shouldn’t!) influence who wins, but it should be recognized that any change to election practices—even if bolstered by impartial scientific evidence made with the best of nonpartisan intentions—will be interpreted through a partisan lens. If states make changes to election laws without bipartisan buy-in, a “legitimacy tax” will be paid in November. In addition, radical changes to election administration are rarely made in presidential years, and for good reason. Big changes to policy generally require big changes to processes, training, equipment, real estate, etc. Without attention to managing these changes, the voter experience risks taking a hit. Finally, voters in different parts of the country regard certain types of voting as more or less legitimate. To be quite precise about this, voters living in states where everyone, from elected officials to rank-and-file voters, has believed all their lives that mail voting as an invitation to election fraud, are unlikely to spin on a dime in their attitudes.

4. There may be a lot of latitude in current laws already to adapt to the Covid-19 emergency. Incremental changes may get us the rest of the way. Over the past 30 years, there’s been an organic shift in most states toward more convenient ways of voting. Taking the next step in that evolution may be the right avenue for most states. If you already have a huge permanent absentee list, the next step—mailing a ballot to everyone—may not be such a big lift. If you require an excuse to vote absentee, making it clear that the need to enforce social distancing falls under the medical excuse may work. Bottom line: states and localities can ask what sort of flexibility they have within established laws before they take on the task of major reform under current circumstances.

5. We are about to learn a lot about balancing the need to socially distance with the need to socially congregate. Election officials will benefit from that learning. Yes, we need to self-isolate. At the same time, it is likely that feeding stations will need to be set up in urban and suburban areas, kids of parents who fill critical jobs will be send to attend day care in large numbers, and we all will need to go to grocery stores to shop for food. These realities will demand that we learn how to queue up, transact business, and move about in an enclosed environment while minimizing health risks. What we learn from these everyday transactions will inform how election officials will want to approach November.

6. Capacity planning will be as critical as changing voting laws and regulations. All approaches to dealing with the Covid-19 emergency will challenge the capacity of the election process. Even if mail balloting increases by a meager 10% in 2020 (compared to 2016), that will burden election officials significantly. (The “flatten the curve” point being made about spreading out the timeline of Covid-19 infection has it application to election administration, as well.)

7. The campaigns will have an important role to play in helping “spread the vote.” In recent years, the expansion of mail and in-person early voting has been partially driven by the efforts of the political campaigns to encourage people to vote before the Election Day. Of course, they do this because they believe it is politically advantageous. I have no doubt in my mind that efforts by the campaigns in 2020 to encourage supporters to vote early, either by mail or in person, will fall on more receptive ears than in the past.

Seven Initial Thoughts on the Iowa Caucus Fiasco

It’s Tuesday morning and we still don’t know the outcome of the Iowa caucus. Acknowledging that all the facts haven’t come in yet, here are some of my initial thoughts:

  1. Who runs “elections?” A caucus isn’t an election, of course, it’s an event run entirely by a party. Despite concerns about election administration in the U.S., one thing the fiasco illustrates is what happens when true amateurs run elections (or “elections.”)
  2. The role of technology. Computer technology can help facilitate the tedious calculations that go into figuring who won. But, technology needs to be rigorously tested before being put into use. Don’t use the election/caucus as an opportunity to beta test, much less alpha test.
  3. Learning from technology snafus.  I worry that the wrong lessons will be learned from the failure of the vote-reporting app.  Initial reports suggest the problems are due to failure of the app to perform under load, usability, and lack of capacity in phone back-up, not security.  Security is vitally important, but it is not the only thing.
  4. The inadequacy of back-up plans as the main system. Often, we point to back-up systems, such as paper ballots and paper poll books, as fail-safes in case election computers fail. This is fine if there are one-off problems. They’re not fine when they become the primary system.
  5. The freak-out over not knowing. So much to say here. Democrats and much of the media want an anointed nominee/savior right now to take on Trump. What should be bumps in the road are becoming existential crises. Take a deep breath, people.
  6. The value of starting in a small state. I’ve never been worried about the first nominating events being in small states. Candidates and the parties need to ramp up somewhat gradually. Better a screw-up in Iowa (or New Hampshire) than in a big state.
  7. RCV is not our savior.  Some people I admire argue this is an example of why we need rank-choice voting.  I like RCV.  But, it’s also complicated and prone to complaints when first-round leaders lose out in vote distribution.  This event has little to add to the RCV debate.