Author Archives: Michael Alvarez

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.

On the recounts: Let’s get it right

Why don’t we immediately know the results of American elections right after polls close on election night?

The answer is simple. American elections are highly decentralized, and highly complex. The laws, procedures, and technologies used for our elections are not designed to produce quick results. Rather the way we administer elections in America requires patience, as we want to get the numbers right, not rely on guesswork.

In America we pride ourselves on our federalist system. One important principle of our democracy is that states many rights under the U.S. Constitution, and important state rights is running elections. States have wide authority to determine the conduct of their elections, and that’s one reason that we see such vast differences in how elections are run in America.

But the decentralization goes further, because in most states elections are largely run by counties or even municipalities. This means that we don’t have a single federal election, nor do we have fifty elections in the states. Rather we have thousands of elections in the November of each even-numbered year, with very different procedures and technologies.

The reality of this extreme decentralization of election administration in America, which is largely unique in the world, is that we have to rely on under-resourced local governments to run elections with integrity. That’s a big ask, because elections are complex administrative tasks.

At Caltech, we’ve been working in collaboration with the Orange County Registrar of Voters here in Southern California, and studying various methods to help audit their election administration practices. When you look under the hood, and see exactly how elections are administered in Orange County, you see quickly how complicated it is.

In the elections this fall, Orange County had over 1500 polling locations, and had to recruit thousands of poll workers to service the polling locations. They have about 1.5 million registered voters, with at least 8,000 of them living abroad or serving in the military. 1.1 million ballots were sent to voters in the mail before the election.

Our research group spent time observing voting in five of Orange County’s early voting centers, and in 35 polling places on Election Day. Seeing how poll workers do their jobs, how the technology works, and witnessing voter experiences directly, is an invaluable experience. We observed just how diligent polling place inspectors and clerks about about trying to provide a good experience for voters.

But we also saw how complicated the process is for poll workers, and saw first-hand why it takes so long for final election results to be tabulated and certified in places like Orange County.

In every Election Day polling place we visited, we saw many voters bringing in their completed and sealed mail ballots, depositing them in the ballot box. Many voters who had received a by-mail ballot brought them along, and surrendered them at the polling place, preferring to vote at the polling place instead. Some of the by-mail voters forgot to bring their ballots to surrender, and others could not be found in the registration books, leading many voters to cast provisional ballots.

All of these ballots have to be confirmed and reconciled after the polls close on Election Day. Despite what people may claim, election officials count every valid ballot — but they must first determine which ballots are valid, and they need to reconcile the vast array of ballots coming from different sources: from in-person early voting, absentee ballots sent by mail, ballots from overseas voters and military personnel, Election Day ballots, provisionals, and mail ballots dropped off on Election Day.

Keep in mind that this process happens in every election jurisdiction in America. The exact procedures and voting technologies used differ across states and counties, but every one of those jurisdictions is doing this very process to come up with a final and accurate tally of all valid votes that were cast in this midterm election. Some jurisdictions do it quickly, others will be slower, but in every single election jurisdiction in America, it takes time to count all of the votes.

This process isn’t pretty to watch, but it’s vital for the health of our democracy. And this process just takes time, because election officials want to get the most accurate count of the vote as is possible.

Not having final election results just after the polls close is not an indication of fraud, or any necessary indication that there was something wrong with the election. Instead, the delay in reporting final results is generally a good thing, as it means that election officials are working hard to make sure that all valid votes are included in the final tabulation.

So why don’t we have final results in many places, a week after the election? Because American elections are decentralized, and complex. Election officials are working to get the results right. We need to give them the time to do that, free from political pressure.

My advice?

Be patient, let the process continue, and make sure that every valid vote cast in the midterm election is counted.

The close gubernatorial election in Georgia: monitoring public opinion about the administration of the election

By Nicholas Adams-Cohen

This is a guest essay, written by Nicholas Adams-Cohen, a Ph.D. student at Caltech, who is working on the Monitoring the Election project.

Nearly half of the American public turned out to vote on November 6th 2018, representing more ballots cast in a midterm than in the last 50 years. As is often the case in a closely contested election, concerns about voter fraud and suppression were broadcast by various media institutions, with journalists and pundits concerned about the ways the democratic process might have been compromised. What if there was a way to detect problem areas in real-time, gauging how voters react to problems in the voting process as incidents occur? Detecting these issues early might allow us to troubleshoot areas where voting procedures break down, ultimately improving the democratic process.

With these goals in mind, the California Institute of Technology’s “Monitoring the Election” project has built a social media election monitor aimed at pinpointing problem areas through social media discussions. If we can determine how the intensity of discussions about various instances of voter fraud correlate with the severity of issues in the voting process, it becomes possible to detect and address voting issues as they occur.

Historically, if social scientists wanted to study whether or not voters had concerns about the voting process, they might rely on voter satisfaction surveys. While useful, survey methods suffer from numerous issues, including non-response biases that are increasingly difficult to correct and a lag between when citizens vote and when they eventually fill out a survey. Our method instead tracks social media streams, specifically Twitter, to discover when, who, and how voters discuss problems in real-time. By collecting all messages mentioning keywords related to potential problems in the voting process, we can extract a signal about where and when the voting process breaks down.

This monitor ran throughout the November 6th, 2018 election, and with the data we collected we can analyze how conversations concerning voter fraud evolved throughout this historic midterm. One of the most insightful ways we can use these data is by determining which areas of the United States faced the most criticisms about voter fraud and suppression. To that end, we used various natural language processing methodologies to determine which messages about fraud and suppression were directed at specific states. The results of this analysis is found in the following map, where we use a gradient the highlight the number how many messages about voter fraud mention a specific state. As shown in the plot below, which charts the number of tweets, we find an unusually high number of messages concerned with Georgia, where the Governor’s race between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams was inundated with concerns about voter suppression. For examples of news reports, you can see the articles here and here.

As shown in line plot below, which plots the number of tweets concerned with voter suppression in Georgia over time, our monitor detected a potential issue with Georgia as early as 12pm PST, before many media groups could widely broadcast these concerns.

As voters become more vocal about the electoral process on social media platforms, these maps and monitors serve as an important and powerful prognosis tool for officials to solve problems and citizens to discover disturbances in the voting process. Ultimately, we hope to continue developing tools to provide transparency, increase efficiency, and help understand the American electoral process.

A High-Intensity Midterm Election: Lessons

Yesterday’s midterm elections across the U.S. were intense. There were highly contested gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House elections, across the country. While final results on voter turnout, and the exact outcome of many of the contested races, will take days or weeks to determine, the good news is that despite the pressure that was put on U.S. election infrastructure yesterday, in general the elections went smoothly.

Keep in mind that before Tuesday, there were concerns about potential attempts to infiltrate the infrastructure of U.S. elections. At this point there’s no evidence of any successful hacks. And as we move into post-election ballot tabulation and reconciliation, we’ll be paying close attention and continue to monitor the integrity of the midterm elections.

And our electoral infrastructure was under pressure yesterday. We will be working to put together data from our OC election integrity pilot project, in particular, documenting the observations from our election-day monitoring, from our Twitter monitor, and the various auditing and forensics analyses we will be doing in coming weeks. All of these will be summarized on the general election dashboard for our project, and we’ll also be pushing out notifications via social media.

So stay tuned.