Author Archives: Michael Alvarez

Election Science and the 2022 U.S. Elections

Believe it or not, we are well into the 2022 U.S. midterm elections. Our research group is still working on various research products using the vast amount of data that we collected in 2020, and I’ll be writing more about those research projects here in the near future.

It’s now spring quarter at Caltech, when I traditionally teach our introduction to elections and campaigns class, Political Science 120. The past few weeks, as I’ve been going back over a lot of research on election administration and technology, teaching it to the students in the class, I’ve also been reflecting quite a bit on the state of election science and the advances that have been made in the past two decades.

I recently took a few old Votomatic punchcard devices to class, to show the students, and when I pulled them off the shelf where they had been stored, look what fell out!

These chads brought back to life what things were like in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, in those days when there was little academic research on election technology and administration. When the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project (VTP) was getting started in the fall of 2000, we were surprised to learn that we lacked basic measures, like how to measure the reliability of voting technologies (which of course led to the invention of the residual vote measure, which is a story to tell later).

As I was recounting in class a brief version of the history of the VTP, I realized two things. First, it’s remarkable the amount of research that the VTP has produced. There are quite a few working papers available on the VTP website, and many others that have been posted in other working paper and preprint archives. Much of this research has been published in peer reviewed journals, and VTP researchers have also produced a number of books in the past two decades. Second, it’s also remarkable to see the dramatic growth and diversification in the academic study of election administration and technology. While back in 2000 I think that there were just a few dozen scholars with experience in the field, that number has exploded in recent years. It’s common today to see election science research being presented and discussed at major academic conferences, and there’s now an annual conference devoted to the field (the Election Sciences, Reform, and Administration annual conference, to be held at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte — July 27-29, 2022). Election science research is also ever more common in the journals today, with new generations of scholars helping to build a strong foundation of published work that continues to advance knowledge in the field.

The challenge is going to be working to document these trends this year, in addition to writing more here about the work that our research group and the VTP are conducting, I’ll continue to try to connect to the other research that is being done in the field, providing context for what other scholars are working on as we get further and further into the 2022 election cycle.

And before I go, one last thing — it’s great to report that the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project is alive and well, twenty-two years after it was founded by the Presidents of Caltech and MIT in the fall of 2000!

Accelerating Election Science

It’s really exciting to write that our report to the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator (NSF-CA) program, “Election Science: A Proposed NSF Convergence Accelerator” is now available. In this report, we argue that there are fourteen research challenges present critical opportunities for NSF-CA funding.

This report was produced with support from the NSF-CA, and my co-authors (or in NSF lingo, co-Principal Investigators, or “PIs”) on the project are Moon Duchin (Tufts University), Gretchen Macht (University of Rhode Island) and Charles Stewart III (MIT). It was a fun and productive experience working with Moon, Gretchen and Charles.

The project started with a number of brainstorming meetings among the co-PIs, and we thought long and hard about what we each identified as the important research opportunities in election science, challenges that were would require collaborations between technology providers, election officials, and academics — and challenges that if appropriately funded, might be solved within a few years.

We started with a first virtual workshop, which had an innovative format. The co-PIs invited a number of election officials from across the United States, representing different types of election jurisdictions, to sit down with one of us and discuss the pain points that they have experienced in recent election cycles, especially during the 2020 election. We also discussed with them the research priorities that the co-PIs had identified and got their input and feedback on those. We recorded these conversations, which was a unique experience, as it’s rare for academics like us to have the chance to sit with some of the most innovative election officials in the world and have an extended conversation about their experiences and what they think academics can do to help improve American election administration and technology.

These recorded conversations, then, were made available to the participants in four virtual workshops held this spring. Workshop participants represented the diversity of experiences and opinions about election administration and election science: academics (both experts in election science and those new to the area), election officials, technology providers, government officials, and stakeholders.

These four workshops spanned four days and sixteen hours, involving intensive large group, small group, and even one-on-one conversations, as we tried to narrow down the set of research challenges and find areas where there was consensus among the workshop participants about the importance and viability of each potential research challenge. In the end, the co-PIs were able to narrow down the list to fourteen research challenges, each of which is both “convergent” (in the sense that they require active collaboration between academics, and both the private and public sectors) and “ripe for acceleration” (in the sense that with appropriate funding solutions could be build in a short period of time.

The fourteen challenges are:

  1. Evaluating Tools for Election Administration
  2. Ensuring Usability within the Voting Experience
  3. Improving Access to Voting
  4. Communicating Effectively with the Electorate
  5. Detecting Anomalies in Election Management Systems
  6. Sharing Election Results for Research, Dissemination, and Anomaly Detection
  7. Visualizing Election Data
  8. Enhancing Voter Identity Verification
  9. Securing Electronic Ballot Delivery & Return
  10. Implementing End-to-End Verifiability
  11. Improving Cybersecurity for Election Administration
  12. Managing Election Geography
  13. Promoting Sustainable and Scalable Sharing of Election Technology
  14. Developing Next-Generation Voting Technologies

I encourage you to take a closer look at the report to learn more about why we identified each as an important research challenge.

So what happens next? Our report is now being reviewed by the NSF-CA, along with the reports from a number of other NSF-CA initiatives that they supported in this year’s cycle of studies. We hope that the NSF-CA decides that supporting these research challenges in the near future is an important priority, and if they do, that our initiative will move to the next stage of development at the NSF-CA.

I want to again thank the many busy people who took time this spring to work with us to help develop this agenda for accelerating research on election science. We learned a great deal from our workshop participants, and while we were forced to meet virtually because of the pandemic, we put the technology to good used and were able to meet new and get to know people passionate about advancing election science. Finally, I want to thank my co-PIs for a great opportunity to work with them, I learned a great deal about aspects of election administration and technology because of our collaboration.

Why Do “Blue Shifts” Happen in American Elections?

Yimeng Li, Michelle Hyun, and I just posted a revised version of our paper, “Why Do Election Results Change After Election Day? The “Blue Shift” in California Elections”. In the paper, we focus our attention on data from Orange County, CA, part of our ongoing research on election integrity in California. Orange County is a very good case for research, as we have a wealth of amazing data from OC, we’ve learned a great deal about how elections are run in OC, and of course, because the Orange County Registrar of Voters, Neal Kelley, has been wonderful about working with our research group.

Research like this would not be possible without strong partnerships with election officials like Neal Kelley. They are also difficult without a strong research group, and in this case, I’ve enjoyed working on this project with Yimeng and Michelle. Yimeng Li is a graduate student at Caltech, who has worked on a number of election science research projects. Michelle is an undergraduate at Caltech, who started working with us on this project as part of her Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) in 2019. As I’ve said many times in many forums, one of the truly remarkable aspects of being a prof at Caltech is working with our exceptional students!

The abstract of our paper summarizes our work and results well:

The counting of votes in contemporary American elections is usually not completed on Election Night. There has been an increasing tendency for vote shares to shift toward Democratic candidates after Election Day in general elections. In this paper, we study this phenomenon using granular data from Orange County, California. Leveraging snapshots of precinct-level election returns and precinct-level demographic and political composition, we conduct the first full-fledged analysis of the potential drivers of vote share shifts. Utilizing snapshots of individual-level administrative records, we provide the first analysis of the characteristics of voters whose ballots were tallied later versus earlier. Far from being anomalous, the vote share shifts are consistent with underlying precinct voter compositions and the order of individual ballot processing. We find the same underlying drivers in North Carolina and Colorado and discuss the implications of the evolving election administration practices across states for public concerns about election integrity.

Of course, in the paper we also present data from other states to help document the general nature of post-election shifts in vote tabulations in the U.S. They are common, and should not be surprising, because election officials are not processing ballots in random order. Rather, they process ballots in batches as they enter into the tabulation and canvass process, which in a jurisdiction like Orange County means that large batches of by-mail ballots may be processed in groups, while ballots from drop boxes and vote centers are likely to get processed in other batches. Provisional and last-minute ballots then may get processed in their own batches as well. As different types of voters are likely to be casting each type of ballot (by-mail early or late, voting in person, drop box voters, and provisional voters), that implies that we ought to see post-election tabulation results shift from party-to-party, especially in very close elections.

We’ve got more research planned on this topic, and of course, we continue to do lots of research with all of the important data we have collected from Orange County.

Another Gubernatorial Recall Election in California

Yes, it’s happening again.

California is very likely to conduct another gubernatorial recall election, most likely sometime in the late summer or early fall. As of media reports yesterday, sufficient signatures have been collected and submitted by those backing the current recall petition to put the recall of Governor Newsom on the ballot later this year.

While there is still some chance that the recall election may not happen (for example, if there is some legal or other administrative intervention, though the chances at this point of that occurring seem unlikely), there are a lot of unknowns still about how his recall election would be held.

For example, as election officials would need to start planning quite soon for this highly-likely recall election, would we see a repeat of statewide universal voting-by-mail for a 2021 recall election? While the pandemic seems to be receding currently in California, as other states are seeing surges in COVID-19 cases, there’s always a chance that California might see a surge.

And once the recall election date is set, and candidates start to file, how many people will file to be on the replacement ballot? Dozens of candidates? Hundreds of candidates? It’s impossible to know today how long the replacement ballot would be, but I’d not bet against there being a very long ballot of replacement candidates on a 2021 recall election ballot.

In any case, it seems like this recall election will happen. There was some excellent research conducted about the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, and now is a great time to dust those papers off and re-read them. I’ll start to post some thoughts about what we learned from that research soon.

I will make one prediction. The 2021 recall election, assuming it happens, will be a lot more tumultuous than pundits today are suggesting. There is likely to be a significant amount of litigation regarding the potential gubernatorial recall election, there will likely be a long ballot of replacement candidates, and the pandemic is likely to introduce complexity into the administration of a recall election.

Voter Confidence and Perceptions of Election Fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election

Our Monitoring the Election project has released two briefs, reporting on preliminary results from a national survey of registered voters conducted immediately after the November 3, 2020 Presidential Election.

These two briefs provide a glimpse into how the heated rhetoric about election and voter fraud before and during the general election has been received by the American electorate.

One of these briefs focuses on the general question of voter confidence in the election.

We asked registered voters to answer four questions about their confidence regarding the 2020 presidential election: their confidence that their own ballot was counted as intended (asked to registered voters who cast a ballot), and their confidence that ballots were counted in their county, their state, and across the nation (the latter three asked to all registered voters). The topline results are shown in this graph from the report.

Voter Confidence

As you can see, 90% of voters were confident that their ballot was counted as they intended, which given the heated rhetoric about this election is a remarkable number. It’s also remarkable that about eight of ten registered voters have confidence that votes were counted as intended in their counties and their states. Those are also remarkable numbers, and in my opinion, a strong indication that American voters are overall quite confident that their local and state election administration was handled well in this contested election.

But when we get to the national level, we find that just over a majority of American registered voters (58%) were confident about the administration of this fall’s election, and that 39% lacked confidence (the remaining registered voters didn’t have an opinion). This lower level of confidence about the national administration of the election is concerning.

Digging one layer deeper into the data, we looked at perceptions of confidence by partisanship and presidential vote. We see high levels of confidences for both Republicans and Democrats, and for both those who voted for Trump or Biden. Nearly every Democratic voters (and nearly every Biden voter) in our sample was confidence that their own ballot was counted as intended: 86% of Democrats were confidence, and 97% of Biden voters were confident. Among Republicans confidence in their own vote was high, with 85% of Republicans and 84% of Trump voters confident in their own vote being counted.

But moving to the national level, the sharp degree of partisan polarization in the United States emerges: while many Democratic and Biden voters were confident about the administration of the election nationally (84% among Democrats, and 87% among Biden voters), most Republicans and Trump supporters lacked confidence in the national administration of the election, with 66% of Republican registered voters lacking confidence, and 70% of Trump voters lacking confidence in the national administration of the vote.

The other brief, authored by Yimeng Li, focuses on a number of questions in the survey asking registered voters about their perceptions that various types of election or voter fraud might occur, and also about hacking of the voting technology in the 2020 election. The survey included questions asking whether the respondent thought that various types of election or voter fraud were common or not:

  • Double voting.
  • Stealing or tampering with voted ballots.
  • Voter impersonation.
  • Non-citizen voting.
  • People voting absentee ballots of other voters.
  • Officials changing reported vote counts in a way that is not a true reflection of how the ballots were actually counted.

Yimeng found that there is a sizable proportion of the American electorate that believes that voter or election frauds like these occur or are common. To quote from the report:

There are many registered voters nationally who said that election or voter fraud
is very common (between 12% and 17% for different types of fraud) or occurs
occasionally (15-17%). Ballot stealing or tempering, fraudulent casting of absentee
ballots intended for another person, and non-citizen voting are perceived to be the
top three types of election or voter fraud. Only about half of the voters believe each
of the six types of fraud occurs infrequently or almost never.

Like we saw regarding voter confidence in the 2020 Presidential election, the perceptions of the American electorate are very polarized along partisan lines. Across the six different types of election or voter fraud we asked about in the survey (Table 2 of the brief), we generally see that majorities of Biden voters believe that these types of fraud are infrequent or that they never occur, while majorities of Trump voters believe that these types of fraud are very common or that they occur occasionally.

A good example of this regards non-citizen voting. Sixty-six percent of Biden voters said that non-citizen voting almost never occurs, while another 12% said it occurs infrequently. On the other hand, 35% of Trump voters said that non-citizen voting is very common, and another 25% said that it occurs occasionally. That’s a pretty stark partisan different in perceptions of the incidence of non-citizen votes.

So what does this all mean, in particular for future elections in the United States?

It seems clear from these topline estimates from this survey that the American electorate remains confident that their own votes were counted, and that they are quite confident that votes in their counties and states were counted as intended. Which is a good sign.

But we see much less confidence in the national administration of the election, where opinions are deeply divided on party lines. We also see that a reasonably large segment of the electorate believes that various types of election or voter fraud occur, and that perceptions about the incidence of election fraud are polarized by partisanship.

This indicates that voters are picking up on elite partisan rhetoric about election and voter fraud, which have been going on since 2016, and which of course has intensified in the past few weeks. But does this mean that despite high levels of voter participation in the 2020 presidential election, will those who lack confidence or are concerned with fraud might be less likely to vote in future federal elections (for example, the 2022 and 2024 elections)? Will the lower levels of confidence in the national administration of federal elections, and concerns about election fraud for some segments of the electorate, lead to further erosion of trust in American democratic institutions?

At this point it’s hard to know what might happen. But these survey results provide some cause for concern, and they show that we need to continue our work to inform the American electorate about the integrity of the 2020 presidential election.

We’ll be posting additional briefs from our survey in coming days and weeks on our website.

Election Day Update From California

It’s a beautiful Election Day, at least here in Southern California!

A few quick morning updates.

  • The California Secretary of State’s latest updates (as of 11/1/2020) notes that 11,161,493 vote-by-mail ballots have been returned (with 22,388,716 issued). They are reporting (as of 11/1/2020) 661,265 in-person votes cast. That’s a total of 11,822,758 ballots returned or cast. Note that the final totals on the number of votes cast in the 2016 presidential election statewide was 14,610,509. It’s quite likely that by the time all of the ballots are in that we’ll exceed the total number of ballots cast in the 2016 presidential election.
  • San Bernardino County (one of the Southern California counties we are tracking) is reporting 463,351 ballots returned as of 11/1/2020. At a similar point in the 2016 presidential election cycle (San Bernardino County reported 221,470 ballots returned). Note that the 2020 mail ballot return numbers in San Bernardino County are currently running about twice what they were in the 2016 presidential election.
  • Orange County (another of our Southern California counties we are monitoring) is now reporting 1,208,924 vote-by-mail ballots returned (of 2,024,785 issued). As of 11/02/2020 OC is reporting a total of 182,841 in-person votes cast, which if we add those to the vote-by-mail ballots returned is 1,391,765 ballots returned or cast in OC.
  • Los Angeles County (yes, we are monitoring LAC as well!) last night reported 146,558 in-person votes cast, and 2,651,717 vote-by-mail ballots returned. From the data we are seeing, turnout this morning at voting centers in LA County is strong, and no doubt, there are still ballots being returned by mail, at drop boxes, and at voting centers throughout the county.

You can see our monitoring reports at Monitoring the Election.

So what are we seeing? Obviously there’s a lot of interest in this election, and so far, California’s voters have responded by returning their vote-by-mail ballots, or by voting in-person. More later today as we get additional data, and after visiting a number of in-person voting centers today.

Monitoring the Election Twitter Tracker

The Monitoring the Election project has launched our Twitter election monitoring tracker. You’ll see real-time data for tweets about election day voting, voter fraud, remote voting, election challenges, voter ID, and polling places. We also break the Twitter day down daily, and by state.

We also have written a methodology brief, which is available on the Monitoring the Election website.

So far, most of the tweets we are seeing regarding election day voting, voter fraud, and remote voting. It’s fascinating to look at the state-by-state Twitter discussions across the states. More on that next week!

Also, if you are interested, we’re moving a lot of new material and trackers to our November 2020 Dashboard. Take a look if you have a few minutes, there’s some pretty interesting analytical data from California and Orange County (CA) now on the Dashboard, and there’s more to come next week.

Early Election Problems

Last week, I gave a public presentation at Caltech, “Can American Have a Safe and Secure Presidential Election?” You can now watch it on YouTube!

One of the things I discussed in the talk were the many real issues that are likely to arise in this fall’s general election, things like long lines in early and Election day voting, administrative snafus, and voter mistakes. We are now starting to see some of these issue arising, as many Americans are now voting in-person, by mail, or using ballot drop boxes.

For example, last week there were reports of a ballot printing error in Los Angeles County, in which an estimated 2100 voters received ballots in the mail that did not have the presidential race.. Also in California, there are reports of unofficial ballot drop boxes being deployed in a number of counties throughout the state, including in Los Angeles, Fresno, and Orange Counties. And with the opening of early voting in Georgia came reports of very long lines, and very long voter wait times.

Keeping in mind that we are just really starting to enter the final weeks of the general election, and that there is a great deal of scrutiny on election administration and voting technology this year, my opinion is that we are really just seeing early signs of things to come. Voters need to be patient, and need to be very careful to check that they have received the right ballot (whether by mail or in person). And check your ballot carefully, making sure to return it to an official ballot drop box, or send it by mail using an official mail drop inside a USPS office.

VTP launches voter guide for November 2020

The Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project has just launched a voter guide for November 2020. You can download the pdf of the voter guide from the VTP website.

Or here’s fun animated graphic (just click on the image, and it’ll launch the interactive voter guide in an informative and fun animated image)!

Special thanks to Silvia Kim for the great suggestion that we get a professional to make the animated graphic!

LA County March 2020 Primary Election Vote Center Evaluation Study

Today we are releasing our preliminary report that looks at the performance of vote centers in the March 2020 primary election in LA County. Our study, the “Preliminary Evaluation of Los Angeles County Vote Center Performance in the March 2020 Primary Elections”, was researched and written by Daniel Guth, Claudia Kann, Seo-young Silvia Kim, and myself.

The report presents the results of a large data analysis project we’ve done in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Registrar Recorder/County Clerk, in which we use a number of unique datasets and dive deeply into many aspects of vote center operations in LA County’s March 2020 primary election. This new preliminary report gives a detailed data-driven analysis of the performance of LA County’s vote centers in the March 2020 primary election, paralleling our qualitative observations in our Election Day observation study, which was released on March 30, 2020.

The key recommendations from our detailed study of vote center performance in the March 2020 primary election are:

  1. We recommend that LACRR/CC strengthen and emphasize the process where real-time wait times data is collected for each vote center, and have them made available to voters and vote center staff in real-time.
  2. We recommend that additional independent evaluation of PollPad malfunctions be undertaken, especially with regard to the Internet connectivity and syncing of PollPads.
  3. We recommend that several datasets not analyzed in this report be made available to better assess the issues that arose in the March primary. These include evaluation of vote center locations, trouble ticket logs, and surveys of vote center staff.
  4. We recommend that LACRR/CC continue to study the functionality of BMDs in the
    March primary. Our research group will also continue to study the available data on
    BMD performance in the March primary. We suggest the following measures for the November general election:

    1. Provide clear, visible guidelines to the voter on how to correctly insert the ballot into the BMD at every BMD to reduce the paper jam rates.
    2. Train the vote center lead to quickly fix a malfunctioning BMD.
    3. Have a technical help backup team ready, especially late on Election Day.

We note that some of our recommendations parallel those in the recently released VSAP Board Report, and we welcome the opportunity to continue our collaboration with the LA County Registrar Recorder/County Clerk, Dean Logan, and his team. We want to thank Dean Logan and his team for providing us with this unparalleled opportunity to have access to the data we used in this report, and for their willingness to answer our questions and help us understand the data and vote center operations in the March primary election.