Author Archives: Michael Alvarez

Polling Place Observation As A Classroom Experience

When we first started the Voting Technology Project, in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, there was very little known in the research literature about the administration of polling places. We quickly learned, as part of the initial research we did in 2000 and 2001, that polling place problems might have produced a large number of “lost votes” in the 2000 presidential election, but we really had no precise methodology for then producing a reliable estimate of the number of votes lost to polling place problems in 2000, nor a good methodology for understanding what was going on in polling places that might have generated lost votes in that same election. The data and tools we had available to us back then led us to estimate that up to a million votes may have been lost in the 2000 presidential election due to problems in polling places.

Observing elections in Orange County (CA) in June 2018.

In our search for new ways to understand what was going on in polling places that might be generating lost votes, we realized that we needed to do some qualitative, in-person, analysis of polling place administration and operations. Early in 2001, I did my first in-person observation of polling places, which was an eye-opening experience. This led to a number of working papers and research articles, for example the paper that I published with Thad Hall, “Controlling Democracy: The Principal-Agent Problems in Election Administration.”. We found that by working collaboratively with state and local election officials, we could gain access to polling places during elections and thereby learn a great deal about how elections are administered, from them and their polling place workers.

Over the years, these polling place observation efforts have become quite routine for me, and I’ve been involved in polling place observation efforts in many states and countries. Each time I go into a polling place I learn something new, and these qualitative studies have given me an invaluable education about election administration, polling place practices, and election security.

As part of my polling place observations, I early on began to involve graduate students from my research group, and also to involve Caltech undergraduates. I integrated visits to actual polling places into the curriculum of my courses; we would discuss election administration before Election Day, we would then engage in polling place observation on Election Day, and then we would discuss what they observed and what we learned from this activity. In general, this has been wildly successful — for students, to actually see the process as it really works, to meet polling place workers and election officials, and to learn the practical details of administering large and complex elections, is an invaluable part of their education. A number of graduate students who where part of these efforts have gone on to themselves continue to observe elections in their area, and to also build these sort of efforts into their curriculum.

Party list ballots in Buenos Aires

But beyond my anecdotal evidence about the effectiveness of teaching students about election administration through polling place observations, I’ve always wondered about how we can try to better measure the education effect of projects like these, and to from there learn more about how to improve our education of each generation of students about election administration and democracy.

That’s why I was very excited to see the recent publication of “Pedagogic Value of Polling-Place Observation by Students”, by Christopher Mann and a number of colleagues. I urge colleagues who are interested in adding an activity like this to their curriculum to read this paper closely, as it has a number of lessons for all of us.

Here’s the paper’s abstract, for interested readers:

Good education requires student experiences that deliver lessons about practice as well as theory and that encourage students to work for the public good—especially in the operation of democratic institutions (Dewey 1923; Dewy 1938). We report on an evaluation of the pedagogical value of a research project involving 23 colleges and universities across the country. Faculty trained and supervised students who observed polling places in the 2016 General Election. Our findings indicate that this was a valuable learning experience in both the short and long terms. Students found their experiences to be valuable and reported learning generally and specifically related to course material. Postelection, they also felt more knowledgeable about election science topics, voting behavior, and research methods. Students reported interest in participating in similar research in the future, would recommend other students to do so, and expressed interest in more learning and research about the topics central to their experience. Our results suggest that participants appreciated the importance of elections and their study. Collectively, the participating students are engaged and efficacious—essential qualities of citizens in a democracy.

My experience has been that student polling place observation can be a very valuable addition to undergraduate and graduate education. I know that every time I enter a polling place to observe, I learn something new — and helping students along that journey can really have an important effect on their educational experience.

More DMV mistakes in California’s new “motor voter” process

The LA Times reported this week that another 1,500 registration errors have been identified in the DMV “motor voter” process. This time, the errors are being blamed on “data entry” errors.

At this point, given that the general elections are only weeks away, it would be fantastic to see if the type of registration database forensics methods that our research group has been building and testing in our collaboration with the Orange County Registrar of Voters might be applied statewide. While there’s never any guarantees in life, it’s likely that the methods we have been developing might identify some of the errors that DMV seems to be generating, in particular potential duplicate records and sudden changes to important fields in the registration database (like party registration). We’d need to test this out soon, to see if how the methods that we’ve been working on with Orange County might work with the statewide database.

Third-party forensic analysis might help identify some of these problems in the voter database, and could help provide some transparency into the integrity of the database during the important 2018 midterm elections.

It’s happened again — more DMV-generated registration snafus in California

Late this past week, there were stories in California newspapers about yet another snafu by the DMV in their implementation of the state’s “motor voter” process. This time, DMV seems to have incorrectly put people into the voter registration system — though exactly how that happened is unclear.

For example, the LA Times reported about the new snafus in their coverage, “California’s DMV finds 3,000 more unintended voter registrations”:

Of the 3,000 additional wrongly enrolled voters, DMV officials said that as many as 2,500 had no prior history of registration and that there’s no clear answer as to what mistake was made that caused registration data for them to be sent to California’s secretary of state.

The Secretary of State’s Office is reportedly going to drop these unintended registrations from the state’s database.

As we are nearing the November 2018 midterm elections, and as there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm in California about these elections, there’s no doubt that the voter registration system will come under some stress as we get closer and closer to election day.

Our advice is that if you are concerned about your voter registration status, check it. The Secretary of State provides a service that you can use to check if you are registered to vote. Or if you’d rather not use that service, you can contact your county election official directly (many of they have applications on their websites to verify your registration status).

Voter registration snafus in California

There’s a story circulating today that another round of voter registration snafus have surfaced in California. This story in today’s LA Times, “More than 23,000 Californians were registered to vote incorrectly by state DMV” has some details about what appears to have happened:

“The errors, which were discovered more than a month ago, happened when DMV employees did not clear their computer screens between customer appointments. That caused some voter information from the previous appointment, such as language preference or a request to vote by mail, to be “inadvertently merged” into the file of the next customer, Shiomoto and Tong wrote. The incorrect registration form was then sent to state elections officials, who used it to update California’s voter registration database.”

This comes on the heels of reports before the June 2018 primary in California of potential duplicate voter registration records being produced by the DMV, as well as the snafu in Los Angeles County that left approximately 118,000 registered voters off the election-day voting rolls.

These are the sorts of issues in voter registration databases that my research group is looking into, using data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters. Since earlier this spring, we have been developing methodologies and applications to scan the County’s voter registration database to identify situations that might require additional examination by the County’s election staff. Soon we’ll be releasing more information about our methodology, and some of the results. For more information about this project, you can head to our Monitoring the Election website, or stay tuned to Election Updates.

Let’s not forget the voters

Recently my colleague and co-blogger, Charles Stewart, wrote a very interesting post, “Voters Think about Voting Machines.” His piece reminds me of something a point that Charles and I have been making for a long time — that election officials should focus attention on the opinions of voters in their jurisdictions. After all, those voters are one of the primary customers for the administrative services that election officials provide.

Of course, there are lots of ways that election officials can get feedback about the quality of their administrative services, ranging from keeping data on interactions with voters to doing voter satisfaction and confidence surveys.

But as election officials throughout the nation think about upcoming technological and administrative changes to the services they provide voters, they might consider conducting proactive research, to determine in advance of administrative or technological change what voters think about their current service, to understand what changes voters might want, and to see what might be causing their voters to desire changes in administrative services or voting technologies.

This is the sort of question that drove Ines Levin, Yimeng Li, and I to look at what might drive voter opinions about the deployment of new voting technologies in our recent paper, “Fraud, convenience, and e-voting: How voting experience shapes opinions about voting technology.” This paper was recently published in American Politics Research, and we use survey experiments to try to determine what factors seem to drive voters to prefer certain types of voting technologies over others. (For readers who cannot access the published version at APR, here is a pre-publication version at the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project’s website.)

Here’s the abstract, summarizing the paper:

In this article, we study previous experiences with voting technologies, support for e-voting, and perceptions of voter fraud, using data from the 2015 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. We find that voters prefer systems they have used in the past, and that priming voters with voting fraud considerations causes them to support lower-tech alternatives to touch-screen voting machines — particularly among voters with previous experience using e-voting technologies to cast their votes. Our results suggest that as policy makers consider the adoption of new voting systems in their states and counties, they would be well-served to pay close attention to how the case for new voting technology is framed.

This type of research is quite valuable for election officials and policy makers, as we argue in the paper. How administrative or technological change is framed to voters — who are the primary consumers of these services and technologies — can really help to facilitate the transition to new policies, procedures, and technologies.

Voting by mail and ballot completion

Andrew Menger, Bob Stein, and Greg Vonnahme have an interesting paper that is now forthcoming at American Politics Research, “Reducing the Undervote With Vote by Mail.” Here’s the APR version, and here’s a link to the pre-publication (ungated) version.

The key result in their analysis of data from Colorado is that they find a modest increase in ballot completion rates in VBM elections in that state, in particular in higher-profile presidential elections. Here’s their abstract:

We study how ballot completion levels in Colorado responded to the adoption of universal vote by mail elections (VBM). VBM systems are among the most widespread and significant election reforms that states have adopted in modern elections. VBM elections provide voters more time to become informed about ballot choices and opportunities to research their choices at the same time as they fill out their ballots. By creating a more information-rich voting environment, VBM should increase ballot completion, especially among peripheral voters. The empirical results show that VBM elections lead to greater ballot completion, but that this effect is only substantial in presidential elections.

This is certainly a topic that needs further research, in particular, determining how to further increase ballot completion rates in lower-profile and lower-information elections.

“None of the above” in Cambodia

“None of the above”, strategic abstention, and mis-marking ballots are sometimes indications of voter dissatisfaction with the choices available to them in an election. This phenomenon has been studied in the research literature, for example, Lucas Nunez, Rod Kiewiet, and I wrote a recent VTP working paper that discusses this at length (“A Taxonomy of Protest Voting“, also available in final published form in the Annual Review of Political Science).

I’m always looking for examples of these sorts of issues in contemporary elections, and this story in the New York Times caught my attention. According to the story (“In Cambodia, Dissenting Voters Find Ways to Say “None of the Above“”), in the recent election in Cambodia of the about 600,000 ballots cast, 8.6% of those ballots were “inadmissible”.

While it is difficult, without further information, to really discern the underlying rationale for all of these “inadmissible” ballots (as Lucas, Rod, and I argue in our paper), this seems like a high rate of problematic ballots, which when combined with the qualitative reports from actual Cambodian voters quoted in the New York Times article indicates that voter dissatisfaction is likely behind many of this problematic ballots.

Though it would be quite interesting to get either voting-station level or even some other micro-data to better understand possible voter intent with respect to these “inadmissible” ballots that were cast in this election.

Research on instant-runoff and ranked-choice elections

Given the interest in Maine’s ranked-choice election tomorrow, I thought that this recent paper with Ines Levin and Thad Hall might be of interest. The paper was recently published in American Politics Research, “Low-information voting: Evidence from instant-runoff elections.” . Here’s the paper’s abstract:

How do voters make decisions in low-information contests? Although some research has looked at low-information voter decision making, scant research has focused on data from actual ballots cast in low-information elections. We focus on three 2008 Pierce County (Washington) Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV) elections. Using individual-level ballot image data, we evaluate the structure of individual rankings for specific contests to determine whether partisan cues underlying partisan rankings are correlated with choices made in nonpartisan races. This is the first time that individual-level data from real elections have been used to evaluate the role of partisan cues in nonpartisan races. We find that, in partisan contests, voters make avid use of partisan cues in constructing their preference rankings, rank-ordering candidates based on the correspondence between voters’ own partisan preferences and candidates’ reported partisan affiliation. However, in nonpartisan contests where candidates have no explicit partisan affiliation, voters rely on cues other than partisanship to develop complete candidate rankings.

There’s a good review of the literature on voting behavior in ranked-choice or instant-runoff elections in the paper, for folks interested in learning more about what research has been done so far on this topic.

“Fraud, convenience, and e-voting”

Ines Levin, Yimeng Li, and I, recently published our paper “Fraud, convenience, and e-voting: How voting experience shapes opinions about voting technology” in the Journal of Information Technology and Politics. Here’s the paper’s abstract:

In this article, we study previous experiences with voting technologies, support for e-voting, and perceptions of voter fraud, using data from the 2015 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. We find that voters prefer systems they have used in the past, and that priming voters with voting fraud considerations causes them to support lower-tech alternatives to touch-screen voting machines — particularly among voters with previous experience using e-voting technologies to cast their votes. Our results suggest that as policy makers consider the adoption of new voting systems in their states and counties, they would be well-served to pay close attention to how the case for new voting technology is framed.

The substantive results will be of interest to researchers and policymakers. The methodology we use — survey experiments — should also be of interest to those who are trying to determine how to best measure the electorate’s opinions about potential election reforms.