Category Archives: residual vote analysis

Residual votes in the 2016 presidential election

After generally declining after the 2000 presidential election, the national residual vote rate rose in the 2016 presidential election. Why?

We tackle this question in a new VTP working paper, “Residual Votes and Abstention in the 2016 Election,” which Charles Stewart III and I wrote with Stephen Pettigrew and Cameron Wimply. Here’s the paper’s abstract:

We analyze the significant increase in the residual vote rate in the 2016 presidential election. The residual vote rate, which is the percentage of ballots cast in a presidential election that contain no vote for president, rose nationwide from 0.99% to 1.41% between 2012 and 2016. The primary explanation for this rise is an increase in abstentions, which we argue results primarily from disaffected Republicans more than from alienated Democrats. In addition, other factors related to election administration and electoral competition also explain variation in the residual vote rates across states, particularly the use of mail/absentee ballots and the lack of competition at the top of the ticket in non-battleground states. However, we note that the rise in the residual vote rate was not due changes in voting technologies. The analysis relies on a combination of public opinion and election return data to address these issues.

“None of the above” in Cambodia

“None of the above”, strategic abstention, and mis-marking ballots are sometimes indications of voter dissatisfaction with the choices available to them in an election. This phenomenon has been studied in the research literature, for example, Lucas Nunez, Rod Kiewiet, and I wrote a recent VTP working paper that discusses this at length (“A Taxonomy of Protest Voting“, also available in final published form in the Annual Review of Political Science).

I’m always looking for examples of these sorts of issues in contemporary elections, and this story in the New York Times caught my attention. According to the story (“In Cambodia, Dissenting Voters Find Ways to Say “None of the Above“”), in the recent election in Cambodia of the about 600,000 ballots cast, 8.6% of those ballots were “inadmissible”.

While it is difficult, without further information, to really discern the underlying rationale for all of these “inadmissible” ballots (as Lucas, Rod, and I argue in our paper), this seems like a high rate of problematic ballots, which when combined with the qualitative reports from actual Cambodian voters quoted in the New York Times article indicates that voter dissatisfaction is likely behind many of this problematic ballots.

Though it would be quite interesting to get either voting-station level or even some other micro-data to better understand possible voter intent with respect to these “inadmissible” ballots that were cast in this election.

PCEA research white papers

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration’s report is getting a lot of attention and praise following its release on Wednesday. One aspect of the report I want to highlight is the degree to which the Commission aimed to ground their findings in the best available research, academic and otherwise.  It renews my faith that it may be possible to build a field of election administration that is more technocratic than it currently is.

The report’s appendix, available through the web site, is a valuable resource on the available research about each aspect of the commission’s charge.

I want to lift up an important subset of that appendix, which is a collection of white papers written by a collection of scholars, drawn from a variety of fields and perspectives, that summarized the large literatures that were relevant to the commission’s work.  A collection of those papers has been assembled in one place, on the VTP web site, so that others might have easy access to them.  Here are the authors and subjects:

Much of this research effort was assisted by the Democracy Fund, though of course, the research is all the work and opinions of the authors. Speaking personally, I greatly appreciate the support and encouragement of the Fund through these past few months.

Residual votes in LA and Palm Beach Counties

During my lunch talk at the Technology, Diversity, and Democracy conference Mike has previously reported on, I used the case of Palm Beach County, Florida to discuss how metrics to gauge the quality of the voting process sometimes are right under our noses, and under-utilized.

Here is a little more detail about PB County (and all of Florida), along with a comparison with LA County (and all of California).

The accompanying graph shows the residual vote rate for Palm Beach County, Florida, from 1992 to 2008. (As far as I can tell, Florida did not gather separate turnout statistics prior to the 1992 presidential election, so we can’t calculate the residual vote rate earlier than 1992.) For the purpose of comparison, I also show the rate for the whole state (excluding PB County) and the nation.

The PB County residual vote rate surged in 1996 (perhaps an early sign of maintenance issues with the punch card devices?) and again in 2000. By comparison, the residual vote rate for all of Florida, while a bit above the national average, was basically flat.

After 2000, Florida not only quickly abandoned the antiquated systems they were using, but they also instituted a reporting system that tracks explicitly the residual vote rate for the top-of-the-ticket races every two years. Here, for instance, is the 2008 analysis of over- and under-votes.  The results of these changes are evident after 2000. In PB County, the residual vote rate dropped from 6.4% in 2000 to 0.5% in 2004. In the rest of the state, the rate dropped from 2.6% to 0.4%. These numbers moved up a bit in 2008, but it’s clear that PB County, and the state as a whole, has entered a new regime in striving to make every vote count.

Now look at a similar graph for LA County, along with the rest of California. California’s residual vote rate has been trending downward since 1992, dipping down below the nationwide average before 2000.  But as the rest of the nation has aggressively tried to reduce residual vote rates, the rest of the nation has now caught up with California.  LA County, which started off significantly higher than the rest of the state — with a notable spike in 1996 — has seen its residual vote rate drop faster than the state as a whole, so that it is now fairly close to the statewide and nationwide averages.

Note, by the way, that there is no dramatic shift in the residual vote rate — absolutely or compared with the state as a whole — with the introduction of the Inkavote system in 2004.  The downward trend just continues.

The differences between California and Florida, and between Los Angeles and Palm Beach counties, are significant, when we think about how elections are run in both states.  However, there are many similarities.  Both are large states that rely on fairly large counties to conduct elections.  Leaving aside LA County, the average California county had a turnout of 179,000 voters in 2008, compared to an average of 126,000 in Florida counties.  County election directors in both states are on the whole highly professional, even though they are chosen in different manners.  Aside from the fact that California ballots are much longer than Florida ballots, one major difference is that Florida has institutionalized an effort to minimize “lost votes,” whereas California has not.

In 2008, the residual vote rate for Florida was 0.7%, compared to 1.3% in California.  If California could reduce that rate to Florida’s, over 82,000 additional votes would be recovered among Golden State residents in presidential years.  The number for LA County alone is over 20,000.