Author Archives: Michael Alvarez

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
election.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voter registration snafus in California

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

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

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

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