Author Archives: Michael Alvarez

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.

Resilient Elections

I’m excited to announce that I’ve started a video series with Paul Gronke, who runs the Early Voting Information Center (EVIC) up at Reed College. We just posted our first video, in which Paul and I give a brief introduction to the series. Please watch our intro, subscribe to our YouTube channel, and let us know your comments and questions.

As we discuss in the introductory video, we are going to focus on topics that we know are going to be important to researchers and election officials as we get closer to the November 2020 presidential elections in the U.S. Paul and I will are working on a number of different videos — some will be the two of us discussing important election science and administration topics. Some will be conversations with other academics who are working on important research questions like voting by mail, election forensics, election integrity, and voter confidence. And finally, we are going to have conversations with election officials, in particular those on the West Coast, who have extensive experience with early and remote voting.

If you are interested in suggesting certain topics, let us know in the YouTube channel comments.

Seo-young Silvia Kim: The Benefits of In-Person Election Observation

Guest Blog by Seo-young Silvia Kim

Silvia Kim is a PhD candidate at Caltech, currently finishing her dissertation research on American Politics and Political Methodology. Silvia has been a key collaborator on the Monitoring the Election project. She’ll be starting her new position as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at American University in August 2020.

On Super Tuesday, I drove more than 170 miles alone in my tattered old car, zigzagging through both Los Angeles and Orange County for election observations, visiting nine vote centers from noon to 10pm. Usually our team policy is to go out in pairs, but this year I was determined to roam the new vote centers far and wide all day, so I volunteered to go alone.

I am a quantitative data analyst—that is to say, I revel in gathering and analyzing numbers. Qualitative research, which focuses on unquantifiable, non-numerical data, is usually not my turf and out of my interest. Yet ever since I jumped into the world of elections and election administration, I have been observing elections every primary and general Election Day. And I would never underestimate the importance of in-person observations in research.

The benefit of in-person observations are numerous. One gets to observe the election take place out in the open, the street-level bureaucrats and voters at their natural “habitat.” Once I arrive, I observe the exterior of the location, ask permission from the center lead to observe, stand still in a corner so that I do not get in the way of voter, and then observe for 10 to 30 minutes. When there is not much traffic at the center and there are no notable troubles, ten minutes could be enough. When there are long lines and apparent trouble at the location, sometimes even 30 minutes is not enough.

If time and place allow, I may also be able to chat with various vote center staff. This did not happen as much as in 2016 or 2018, as there was high turnout and the staff were busy. But during the early voting period, or in locations with less voters, or when a staff is biting into cold pizza slices, I get to ask questions about what is going on at the voting location. Are all check-in devices working properly? Did they receive all necessary equipment on time? Were communications with the Registrar smooth and readily available? Were there any particular spikes in provisional voting or voter information edits, and if so, why? In most cases, they are happy to provide answers, as I consolidate these into recommendations for the Registrar, as in the Los Angeles Vote Center Observation Report.

While these anecdotes may not necessarily be generalizable, they provide important intuition as to what to look for when numerical data actually arrives. For instance, I personally observed thousands of students milling in a line to vote, a vote center in Los Angeles County. Did the same happen in Orange County, where I did not get to see any college locations? When I analyzed the wait time data, as reported in our Orange County Vote Center Observation and Wait Time Report, I did indeed see long wait time at UCI, CSUF, and Chapman University’s data. Based on the intuition built from my observations, I can look for common patterns in the data more quickly. In other words, the qualitative analysis that I undertake provides direction and guidance.


With COVID-19, the administrators all around the United States are scrambling to prepare for the voting experience in the midst of a pandemic. It may not be possible to “observe” the election as I usually have. It will still be beneficial if alternatives can be implemented—for example, researchers talking directly to staff that have worked on the in-person voting locations via the phone. If not, we still hope that the intuition that we have gathered for Los Angeles and Orange County improve the voting experience of Southern California’s electorate in future elections.

The Blue Shift in California Elections

Guest Blog by Michelle Hyun

Michelle is an undergraduate student at Caltech. In the summer of 2019, she was a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellow (SURF) at Caltech. Her research was conducted in collaboration with Yimeng Li and R. Michael Alvarz. We have recently released a working paper, it’s now available online, “Why Do Election Results Change After Election Day? The Blue Shift in California Elections.”

With the presidential primaries ongoing, and the November 2020 general election looming, it is critical to explain the trends of voters and the integrity of the election. In many past elections, the occurrence of the electoral “Blue Shift,” in which vote margins are observed to shift towards favoring Democratic candidates, has provided a surge of votes in the later parts of the vote count that has caused changes in leads more often than expected. This shift can cause people to call into question the integrity of the election system, which is dangerous for the legitimacy of democratic elections and the participation of voters in their government.

The blue shift has been observed in several past elections: one such example was the 39th District’s 2018 election for the U.S. House of Representatives, Young Kim believed she had won the race, but after a few weeks, it was revealed that her opponent, Gil Cisneros, had actually won. Elections in Orange County, California in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018 for House of Representative seats, gubernatorial seats, and presidential seats were analyzed to seek the cause of the drift. Shifts occurred across almost all of these elections, and while they may not have been enough to change the results of all the elections, the drift was certainly enough to raise questions.

Technological advances have made ballot counting and transmission of election results faster than ever. In many states including California, soon after polls close, election officials release results from early-voting ballots and mail ballots that have been processed before Election Day, followed by regular ballots cast on Election Day as precincts report them. Major cable networks, radio stations, and other media organizations receive these results from The Associated Press correspondents stationed at local government offices and data feeds provided by local governments as soon as they become available and make projections on most races. As a result, for voters following Election Day coverage on TV, radio, the Internet, or through morning newspapers, it may appear that elections are mostly over except for a few close contests by the end of Election Night. This perception masks the reality that a significant fraction of ballots is counted after Election Day, especially in states like California where voting by mail and provisional ballots are common.

This paper shows that the demographics of the voters and the number of ballots that are counted later in the election process are directly related to the magnitude of the blue shift. Using data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters (OCROV), we were able to find a positive association between Democratic voters and blue shifts; additionally, using data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES) and the Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE), we were able to find that young, non-white voters are more likely to cast ballots that are counted later in the vote count process. Our findings are significant in that they explain a phenomenon that may call into question the integrity of our voting system. As the presidential primaries continue and as the general election approaches, we seek to establish voter confidence to encourage voter participation and ensure a smooth transition of power.