Author Archives: Michael Alvarez

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.

Following the 2018 midterms on Twitter

As part of our election integrity study in Orange County (CA) we are tracking what people are saying on Twitter about the 2018 midterm elections.

We are summarizing Twitter discussion about the midterm elections on a number of topics: tweets about Election Day Voting, Remote Voting, Voter Fraud, Voter ID, and Polling Places.

If you are interested in following the online conversation hourly or daily, the dashboard is live. There’s also a series of maps where we display the Twitter conversation about the administration of the 2018 midterms by state, for Tweets that we can geocode.

We have a Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project working paper that describes the general approach to how we collect, process, and categorize these Tweets.

OCRV project gearing up for the general election

Our Orange County election integrity project is gearing up for the general election.

At this point, we are tracking by-mail ballots, the most recent data on ballots mailed and ballots returned is on the general election dashboard, at “Vote By Mail Return.”

We are also monitoring a number of different conversations about the elections on Twitter, you can see what that conversation looks like at the “National Twitter Monitor”. We are currently seeing a lot of Twitter conversation about Election Day voting and about Remote voting (early and voting by mail).

Finally, we have recently posted a summary report that presents the results from our voter registration auditing collaboration with OCRV. The summary report can be found on the “Voter Registration Database Auditing” tab, on the general election dashboard.

We will continue to update the dashboard over the next few weeks!

Five books to read for the 2018 midterm elections

As we head into the final stretch of the 2018 midterm election season, I thought I’d share five interesting, well-written, and engaging books that I’ve read recently, books that might provide some useful context for the midterms.

The first is Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States. Don’t be intimidated by this book’s length (it’s 960 pages!), as it’s highly engaging, and written in a style that is quite easy to read. I’m impressed by Lepore’s ambition (covering American history in 960 pages), and by the way she weaves through the book detailed stories of many of the personalities behind the important events she covers. This book provides great context for this important midterm election.

A second book is Ron Chernow’s Grant. This is also an imposing book, just over 1000 pages (I read parts some, listened to most). I enjoyed this book, mainly as there is a lot of Grant’s story that I didn’t know well, especially his role in the western theater of the Civil War, and the events of his presidency. Reading this book, I was struck by a number of parallels to current politics, and it was quite interesting to read about Grant’s personal and professional struggles, and how he resolved many of the issues he encountered as a person, a military leader, and as president.

Third, I recommend David Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age. Sanger covered the Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election at the New York Times, and this book provides both great context for the evolution of cyberwar, he carefully and thoroughly discusses what is known about the attempts to manipulate the 2016 elections. As many of you know, we’ve been working on election security for a long time, and a particular focus of our recent research at Caltech has been on developing methodologies for detecting attempts at manipulating voter registration databases. Sanger’s book is a readable resource for anyone trying to understand the security risk that election administrators face.

The next two books are more academic in nature, but I’ve been fielding a lot of questions recently about these topics, so I thought I’d put a book about voter turnout and about polling on this list.

So regarding voter turnout, the best contemporary book on the subject was written by my colleagues Jan E. Leighley and Jonathan Nagler, Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States. If you really want to know why people in the U.S. vote, why they don’t vote, and why it matters — you should read Leighley and Nagler. I have a well-read copy in my office, and I find that I refer to their book quite frequently. They are the experts on voter participation, having studied for decades why people vote and why the don’t vote, and their book provides the best analysis of this important subject that I’m aware of.

Then there is polling. In 2016 there were many issues with the public polls, especially those trying to gauge voter turnout and sentiment in the final weeks of the election in the battleground states. Polling and survey methodology is in a state of flux; the traditional methods of sampling and contacting respondents (like random-digit dialing) are under considerable scrutiny, and academics and professional pollsters are turning to many different types of respondent-driven survey approaches. The best resource today for understanding the current state of polling and survey methods is the Oxford Handbook of Polling and Survey Methods, which I edited with Lonna Atkeson. It’s a hefty handbook, and it’s not cheap, but it surveys the landscape of polling and survey methods from sampling, to questionnaire design, survey implementation, and the analysis/presentation of survey results. If you have a question about polling or surveying, the answer is likely to be in this handbook.

Okay, so perhaps you were looking for me to recommend some books that weren’t political history, about cyberwar, or academic treatments of turnout and polling. If so, here’s a few quick suggestions. For the past few years, I’ve taken the suggestion of Nick Hornby and journaled all of the books that I’ve started, keeping track of the ones I’ve read and enjoyed, those I’ve read and not enjoyed, and those I didn’t finish. Here are five works of fiction; if you are looking for something to keep your attention away from the midterm elections. Five of my favorite recent fiction reads, in no particular order, are: Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing; Kristin Hannah, The Great Alone; Paul Tremblay, A Head Full of Ghosts; Sebastian Barry, Days Without End; and George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo.

Turnout in the 2018 midterm: high turnout could stress our nation’s election infrastructure

It’s cliche to say that “turnout will determine the outcome of the midterms”.

Of course turnout “matters”. Whichever party or candidate is more successful in convincing their strong supporters, and the more occasional voters, to turnout to vote this fall will most likely prevail in this

That said, turnout also “matters” for election administration. More people registering to vote at the last minute, more people requesting ballots by mail, more people showing up to vote at early voting locations, and most importantly, more people showing up at polling places on election day — all of these can put stress on the processes, procedures, personnel, and technology behind a successful election.

So I’m watching the early voting data pretty closely at this point, and there was an interesting story in yesterday’s New York Times, “Millions Have Vote Early in the Midterms. Here’s What That Means — and What It Doesn’t.” In this story, Michael McDonald from the University of Florida is quoted ““If these patterns persist, we could see a turnout rate at least equaling the turnout rate in 1966, which was 48 percent, and if we beat that then you have to go all the way back to 1914, when the turnout rate was 51 percent,” he said. “We could be looking at a turnout rate that virtually no one has ever experienced.”

If he’s right, that will make for an interesting election — and it could mean that we might see longer lines that people have been used to in many places on Election Day. This could also mean that in many places, especially those with high turnout and close elections, that results may be uncertain for days (perhaps weeks if there are recounts).

Voters waiting in line

At this point, these indications at the national level that turnout might be strong in this midterm election lead me to recommend patience. Voters should be patient — there might be lines at early voting locations, and at polling places on Election Day. Stakeholders and the public should be patient — we might need to wait a bit longer than usual to get the results in close elections.

I’ll continue to watch these early voting trends, as turnout in this midterm could put some significant stress on the nation’s election infrastructure.

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.