Better methods for informing voters — new research

Outside of the U.S., there has been a great deal of interest in voter-advice applications (VAAs). These tools give voters an opportunity to get unbiased advice about which candidates or parties to support, usually in complex multicandidate or multiparty contexts.

However the academic research on VAAs has, to date, focused on observational studies and hasn’t shown a clear causal connection between VAA use and changes in voting intentions. However, Joelle Pianzola, Alexander H. Trechsel, Kristjan Vassil, Guido Schwerdt, and I just published a paper in the Journal of Politics, “The Impact of Personalized Information on Vote Intention: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment.” In the paper we present evidence from a randomized controlled field experiment in Switzerland that indicates that VAA use produced changes in voter intentions.

Here’s the paper’s abstract:

Voting advice applications (VAAs) are voter information tools that millions of individuals have used in recent elections throughout the world. However, little is known about how they affect political behavior. Until now, observational studies of VAA have produced inconclusive results. Here we present the results from a randomized field experiment in Switzerland that estimates the causal effects of VAA use on voters’ vote intentions. Our results suggest that usage of the Swiss VAA smartvote strengthened the vote intention for the most preferred party and also increased the number of parties considered as potential vote options. These results imply that VAAs can influence voting behavior and that they can play an important role in electoral politics.

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.

Research on polling place lines and dynamics in PRQ!

Readers may remember that in 2016 a consortium of researchers from across the U.S. (including Caltech) participated in a large study of polling places lines and dynamics in the November general election. The great news is that some of the results have been published in the journal Political Research Quarterly. The study is a wonderful example of how much progress has been made in developing a science of election study.

The paper, “Waiting to Vote in the 2016 Presidential Election: Evidence from a Multi-county Study”, is now available on the journal’s website. The lead author is Robert M. Stein. Here’s the paper’s abstract:

This paper is the result of a nationwide study of polling place dynamics in the 2016 presidential election. Research teams, recruited from local colleges and universities and located in twenty-eight election jurisdictions across the United States, observed and timed voters as they entered the queue at their respective polling places and then voted. We report results about four specific polling place operations and practices: the length of the check-in line, the number of voters leaving the check-in line once they have joined it, the time for a voter to check in to vote (i.e., verify voter’s identification and obtain a ballot), and the time to complete a ballot. Long lines, waiting times, and times to vote are closely related to time of day (mornings are busiest for polling places). We found the recent adoption of photographic voter identification (ID) requirements to have a disparate effect on the time to check in among white and nonwhite polling places. In majority-white polling places, scanning a voter’s driver’s license speeds up the check-in process. In majority nonwhite polling locations, the effect of strict voter ID requirements increases time to check in, albeit modestly.

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.

Don’t miss C-SPAN on Saturday!

C-SPAN was recently in Pasadena, as part of their Cities Tour. I did an interview with them, focusing on my research with Andrew Sinclair on primary election reform in California. My interview will be aired at 4:30pm Pacific on Book TV (CSPAN-2), so don’t miss it.

The interview centers around the book that Andy and I published, Nonpartisan Primary Election Reform: Mitigating Mischief. I talked a bit during the interview about the work that Andy and I have been doing more recently with Betsy Sinclair of Washington University in St. Louis and Christian Grose of USC, studying the more recent elections in California using the top-2 system (hopefully that material didn’t end up on the cutting room floor!).

But if you do miss it on Saturday, when the link to the interview is available, I’ll post it here.

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.

New developments in the fight on election interference

There is a news report today that in last fall’s midterm elections, the U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA worked to take Russian cyber-trolls offline. It’s an interesting new development in the continuing fight against interference in U.S. elections. Here’s a link to the Washington Post story, and here’s the summary:

The strike on the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, a company underwritten by an oligarch close to President Vladi­mir Putin, was part of the first offensive cyber-campaign against Russia designed to thwart attempts to interfere with a U.S. election, the officials said.

“They basically took the IRA offline,” according to one individual familiar with the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information. “They shut them down.”

Interesting development in the continuing struggle to fight cyber interference in elections.