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The Iowa Democratic Caucus: Why Elections Need To Be Fully and Independently Audited

It’s Friday morning, and by this time I think that everyone who follows American elections thought that we’d have some clear sense of the outcome of the Iowa Democratic Caucus.

Instead, we have headlines like this, from the New York Times, “Iowa Caucus Results Riddled With Errors and Inconsistencies.” While it’s not necessarily surprising that there are errors and inconsistencies in the current tabulation reports from the Iowa Democratic caucuses, the issue is that we may never get a clear, trustworthy, and accurate tabulation of the caucus results.

It’s helpful that the caucuses produced tabulation results on paper — and these paper tabulation records can be examined, and these records can form the basis for recounting and even auditing the caucus results. But it doesn’t seem that there ever was any intention for anyone to try to audit or validate the results of the caucus. And I keep scratching my head, wondering why, given how close and competitive the Democratic presidential selection contest has been, it doesn’t appear that anyone considered building a process to audit and validate the caucus results in near-real time.

For example, in our Monitoring The Election project, we pilot tested independent and near real-time quantitative auditing of a number of aspects of the election process in Orange County (CA) in 2018. We are now just starting to do that same type of auditing in both Orange County and Los Angeles County for the March Super Tuesday primary (we’ll start releasing some of our auditing reports very soon). A similar process could have been used in the Iowa caucuses.

What would it involve? Quite simply, the Iowa Democratic Party could work out a data provision plan with an independent auditing group (say the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project and/or university and college teams in Iowa). They could securely provide encrypted images of the tabulation reports from the caucus sites, and the independent auditing team would then produce auditing reports for each round of tabulation. These reports, like those that we currently produce as part of our project, would of course be provided to the appropriate officials and then posted to a public website. As rounds of tabulation proceed, this process could continue, until the final tabulation is complete, at which time the independent auditing group could provide their evaluation of the final reported tabulation.

This could have been done earlier this week, and had such a system been in place, it might have helped provide an independent perspective on the problems with the initial tabulations on Monday night, and quite likely could have alleviated a lot of the rumors and misinformation about why the tabulation was proceeding so slowly and why the results were riddled with errors and inconsistencies. By announcing, in advance of the caucuses, a plan for independent auditing of the tabulation results by a trustworthy third-party, the Iowa Democratic Party could have relied on the auditing process to help them figure out the issues in the tabulation, and perhaps helped to buttress confidence in the accuracy of the reported results.

At this point in time, while the data is being released, it’s unfortunate that there wasn’t an independent auditing process established before the crisis hit.

In my opinion, one of the most important lessons from this experience this week is that election processes need to be fully and independently audited. Whether those audits are conducted by academic researchers, or by other third-parties, they need to be a regular component of the administration of any public election process (caucuses, primaries, special elections, and general elections). I think that election officials throughout the United States can learn a lesson about the importance of independent election performance auditing from the chaos of the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

Seven Initial Thoughts on the Iowa Caucus Fiasco

It’s Tuesday morning and we still don’t know the outcome of the Iowa caucus. Acknowledging that all the facts haven’t come in yet, here are some of my initial thoughts:

  1. Who runs “elections?” A caucus isn’t an election, of course, it’s an event run entirely by a party. Despite concerns about election administration in the U.S., one thing the fiasco illustrates is what happens when true amateurs run elections (or “elections.”)
  2. The role of technology. Computer technology can help facilitate the tedious calculations that go into figuring who won. But, technology needs to be rigorously tested before being put into use. Don’t use the election/caucus as an opportunity to beta test, much less alpha test.
  3. Learning from technology snafus.  I worry that the wrong lessons will be learned from the failure of the vote-reporting app.  Initial reports suggest the problems are due to failure of the app to perform under load, usability, and lack of capacity in phone back-up, not security.  Security is vitally important, but it is not the only thing.
  4. The inadequacy of back-up plans as the main system. Often, we point to back-up systems, such as paper ballots and paper poll books, as fail-safes in case election computers fail. This is fine if there are one-off problems. They’re not fine when they become the primary system.
  5. The freak-out over not knowing. So much to say here. Democrats and much of the media want an anointed nominee/savior right now to take on Trump. What should be bumps in the road are becoming existential crises. Take a deep breath, people.
  6. The value of starting in a small state. I’ve never been worried about the first nominating events being in small states. Candidates and the parties need to ramp up somewhat gradually. Better a screw-up in Iowa (or New Hampshire) than in a big state.
  7. RCV is not our savior.  Some people I admire argue this is an example of why we need rank-choice voting.  I like RCV.  But, it’s also complicated and prone to complaints when first-round leaders lose out in vote distribution.  This event has little to add to the RCV debate.

Seo-young Silvia Kim’s research on the costs of moving on turnout

Seo-young Silvia Kim, one of our PhD students at Caltech working on our Monitoring the Election project, has recently posted a really interesting working paper online, “Getting Settled in Your New Home: The Costs of Moving on Voter Turnout.” Silvia’s recently presented this paper at a couple of conferences and in research seminars at a number of universities.

What is the dynamic impact of moving on turnout? Moving depresses turnout by imposing various costs on voters. However, movers eventually settle down, and such detrimental effects can disappear over time. I measure these dynamics using United States Postal Services (USPS) data and detailed voter panel data from Orange County, California. Using a generalized additive model, I show that previously registered voters who move close to the election are significantly less likely to vote (at most -16.2 percentage points), and it takes at least six months on average for turnout to recover. This dip and recovery is not observed for within-precinct moves, suggesting that costs of moving matter only when the voter’s environment has sufficiently changed. Given this, can we accelerate the recovery of movers’ turnout? I evaluate an election administration policy that resolves their re-registration burden. This policy proactively tracks movers, updates their registration records for them, and notifies them by mailings. Using a natural experiment, I find that it is extremely effective in boosting turnout (+5.9 percentage points). This success of a simple, pre-existing, and non-partisan safety net is promising, and I conclude by discussing policy implications.

This is important and innovative work, I highly recommend her paper for readers interested in voter registration and voter turnout. She uses two different methods, one observational and the other causal, to show the reduction in the likelihood of turnout for registered voters who move.

Auditing Voter Registration Databases

As many readers know, we’ve been working on a variety of election performance auditing projects, focusing on voter registration database auditing and other types of statistical forensics (you can see a number of examples on our Monitoring The Election project page). We also have been working on post-election ballot auditing, including our recent Election Audit Summit.

Recently the first paper from our new election integrity project in Orange County (CA) was published, in the peer-reviewed journal American Politics Research. This paper, “Evaluating the Quality of Changes in Voter Registration Databases”, was co-authored by myself, Silvia Seo-young Kim (a Ph.D. student here at Caltech), and Spencer Schneider (a Caltech undergrad). Here’s the paper’s abstract:

The administration of elections depends crucially upon the quality and integrity of voter registration databases. In addition, political scientists are increasingly using these databases in their research. However, these databases are dynamic and may be subject to external manipulation and unintentional errors. In this article, using data from Orange County, California, we develop two methods for evaluating the quality of voter registration data as it changes over time: (a) generating audit data by repeated record linkage across periodic snapshots of a given database and monitoring it for sudden anomalous changes and (b) identifying duplicates via an efficient, automated duplicate detection, and tracking new duplicates and deduplication efforts over time. We show that the generated data can serve not only to evaluate voter file quality and election integrity but also as a novel source of data on election administration practices.

An ungated pre-print version of this paper is available from the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project’s website, as Working Paper 134.

We are continuing this work with Orange County, and have in recent months been working to explore how these same voter registration database auditing methodologies can work in larger jurisdictions (Los Angeles County) and in states (Oregon). More on those results soon.

The process that led to the development of this project, and to the publication of this paper, is also interesting to recount. In this paper, we make use of daily voter registration “snapshots”, that we obtained from the Orange County Registrar of Voters, starting back in April 2018. This required that we collaborate closely with Neal Kelley, the Orange County Registrar of Voters, and his staff. We are very happy to participate in this collaborative effort, and thank Neal and his team for their willingness to work with us. It’s been a very productive partnership, and we are very excited to continue our collaboration with them going in the 2020 election cycle. This is the sort of academic-election official partnership that we have worked to build and foster at the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project since our project’s founding in the immediate aftermath of the 2000 presidential election.

It’s also fun to note that both of my coauthors are Caltech students. Silvia is in her final year in our Social Science Ph.D. program, and she is working on related work for her dissertation (I’ll write later about some of that work, which you can see on Silvia’s website). Spencer worked closely with us on this project in 2018, as he participated in Caltech’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. His project was to work with us to help build the methodology for voter registration database auditing. Currently, Spencer is working in computer science and engineering here at Caltech. This paper is a great example of how we like to involve graduate and undergraduate students in our voting technology and election administration research.

Research on UOCAVA voting

In today’s world, the shelf life of a typical academic research article is pretty short. Most papers are published electronically, with a quick and immediate burst of attention (usually fueled by conversation about the paper on social media). After that initial burst of attention, for most academic papers, mentions online and citations quickly wane.

So it was with some pride that I heard of continued interest in a paper that I published over a decade ago with Thad E. Hall and Brian F. Roberts, “Military Voting and the Law: Procedural and Technological Solutions to the Ballot Transit Problem.” In the paper, we looked at UOCAVA voting, focusing on how the focus on the issue has changed from concerns about procedures to concerns about technologies.

I’ve gone back and re-read this paper, and thought I’d write about it here as it covers the history of UOCAVA voting quite well. It serves as a good primer for the history of the issues surrounding UOCAVA voting, and it really sets the stage well for understanding the challenges that UOCAVA voters and election officials face when they try to make sure that UOCAVA voters can easily and securely exercise their voting rights. The basic technological challenges that we discuss in the paper are as true and real today as they were when we wrote the paper over a decade ago.

And the good news is that this paper is available online, so give it a read if you are interested in the history of UOCAVA voting.

Mitigating Mischief

As I wrote last week, CSPAN recently profiled research that I’ve been working on with Andy Sinclair. The interview aired over the past weekend, and it’s now online. Here’s the link to the CSPAN interview.

And here is a link to our book, Nonpartisan Primary Election Reform: Mitigating Mischief.

Andy and I are working on new work on the top-two primary, in collaboration with Christian Grose (USC) and Betsy Sinclair (WUSTL). We hope to have our next book with Christian and Betsy done soon, stay tuned!

New research on online voter registration and turnout

Since the movement towards online voter registration began years ago, there’s been discussion among academics, advocates, and election officials about whether online voter registration will boost voter turnout.

There’s a new research article published electronically in Social Science Quarterly, by Jinjai Yu, that looks into this question. The paper, “Does State Online Voter Registration Increase Voter Turnout”, uses Census self-reported voter turnout data, looking at the potential association between the availability of online voter registration and voter turnout. To quote from the paper’s abstract:

The results of this study demonstrate that state online voter registration increases voter turnout. The difference‐in‐difference analysis shows that the states’ implementation of online voter registration increases the turnout of young voters by about 3 percentage points in presidential election years. The instrumental variable analysis shows that the usage of online registration by voters increases their turnout by about 18 to 20 percentage points.

According to the analysis reported in the paper, the availability of online voter registration seems to be especially important for younger citizens in presidential election years.

Call for papers: Election Science and Administration Research Symposium in APR

There’s a call for research papers on election administration, to be published in the journal American Politics Research. The special issue of APR will be edited by Martha Kropf — I’m looking forward to seeing it!

Here’s a link to the call.

I encourage readers who are conducting research on voting technology and election administration to submit their work to APR for this special issue. There’s now a great deal of really fantastic research going on across a variety of academic disciplines, it’s wonderful to see the creation of these venues for publishing that work.

Thanks to Martha Kropf for editing the special issue, and to APR’s editor Costas Panagopoulos for his vision to make this special issue possible.

Big changes coming in the OC

As Election Updates readers know, in 2018 our Caltech team collaborated in an important election integrity and election performance auditing study with the Orange County Registrar of Voters. The project material is available online — and we are now working on various research papers and a book-length report about the pilot project, how we did it, what we found, and how we can improve on these methods in the future.

In an interesting development, Orange County will be moving away from traditional Election Day polling place voting, towards more widespread use of voting by mail and vote centers. Here’s an OC Registrar story that talks about the transition.

We are looking forward to the continuation of our collaboration with OCROV, and helping them as they implement and evaluate this transition in 2020. The data and analyses that we did in 2018 will provide strong baseline data that we can use to evaluate the changes in 2020, and there’s no doubt that the results of our continued collaboration will provide important data for other jurisdictions that are planning on similar transitions in the near future.

Announcing a User Group and Listserv for Data Analysts Working for Federal, State, and Local Election Agencies

Today I’m announcing that the MIT Election Data and Science Lab is creating a user group and related listserv intended for data analysts who work for federal, state, and local election agencies.  I hope that anyone who is interested will read on.

Anyone interested may add themselves to the listserv by going to this link, or by e-mailing me .

The details

The idea behind this user group and listserv is based on the observation that election agencies are increasingly hiring employees to provide data analysis in support of election administration.  In some cases, these are separate, full-time positions.  In others, these are positions for which data analysis is one of several duties.  Some of these employees come from data science or policy analysis backgrounds.  Others have fallen into the position, as the agency they work for found it necessary to respond to requests for increasingly sophisticated data analysis and data requests.

As the number of people providing data analysis to election agencies grows, so does the value of creating a professional community of election administration data analysts.  Some of the benefits include learning from peers, working out puzzles, contributing to the development of this field, and sharing the joys and frustrations of the job.

One can imagine at least two ways that this community could evolve over time.  First, it could exist as an online community organized around the listserv.  The model here is something like the election law listserv that Rick Hasen coordinates out of UC-Irvine.  That’s the minimalist path. The second path is a little more involved, and have a more face-to-face component.  The model I have in mind for this is the annual State Certification Testing of Voting Systems Conference that has been held for nearly a decade.  Others will certainly have other ideas.

My own hope is that we could evolve this into something like the State Certification conference (which I always call the “Merlefest,” after one of its founders and its soul, Merle King), which has done a great job of building a community among those who are responsible for the voting technology side of the house. Not only has it been a great place to share information, but it has provided a safe place for members of the community to develop a professional identity and accumulate knowledge.

For now, we’re starting with a listserv.  Our hope is that the listserv would allow election agency employees who work in data analysis to get to know each other and learn from each other.

Anyone interested may add themselves to the listserv by going to this link, or by e-mailing me .

Feel free to distribute this message to others who might be interested.  For now, we will restrict membership to people who work for federal, state, and local election agencies.  Once a community is established, it can decide whether to add people who do similar work, but for non-election agencies.

One last point:  Some will notice that although we are suggesting that this be a community confined (at the moment) to employees of election agencies, MEDSL is not such an agency.  We recognize the irony.  Our goal is to help jump-start this effort.  Once it gets going, we can step away, if that’s the will of the group.  For now, the important thing is to start.