Thoughts on the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NBEBA) and the ACCESS Act

By Charles Stewart III, MIT

Things are moving fast on Capitol Hill regarding emergency stimulus funding and its relationship to making the 2020 election safe in the midst of the coronavirus emergency.

Here are some thoughts about the two major pieces of legislation that have been proposed on this subject, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act of 2020 (DEBA) in the Senate and the ACCESS Act in the House. (The ACCESS Act is part of Nancy’s Pelosi’s broader “Take Responsibility for Workers and Family Act.”) Both are similar—in some cases, identical.

To discipline things, I have organized my thoughts along the lines of the ten steps that Nate Persily and I proposed in the Lawfare Blog last week on the needed response of the nation in light of the medical crisis. These comments are mine alone, not Nate’s. Each heading is one of the ten steps. The text that follows is commentary.

  1. The United States must plan for a significant shift to mail balloting for the 2020 election. This legislation provides one model for nudging states toward a significant shift in offering mail balloting. The biggest shift would come for states that currently require an excuse to receive an absentee ballot, which numbers seventeen in all. In 2016, eight states saw fewer than 5% of ballots cast by mail. By mandating that states, at the very least, move to a “no-excuse” regime, there will undoubtedly be more mail balloting in 2020. How much more will depend on the receptiveness of voters and the urgency of the situation come next fall.
  2. The nation must commit to supporting the logistical effort necessary to conduct mail elections with integrity and efficiency. These bills won’t, by themselves, create the logistical infrastructure necessary to conduct mail elections with integrity and efficiency. As we specify in the Lawfare article, voting by mail is complex. In the states that have expanded it the most, they have done so over several election cycles, fine-tuning the process as time went along. Certainly, money will be necessary to finance any expansion of voting by mail. What is more critical is the expansion of management capacity to match.
  3. Any efforts to expand voting by mail in time for the November election must appreciate the partisan polarization surrounding changes in election rules. To state the obvious, no Republicans have signed onto these efforts, which doom them from the start, at least as written. This is not to say that they’re a waste of time. Certainly, they provide a starting point for bargaining and for signaling to allied groups that the Democratic Party is committed to these issues. (On this point, the absence of a highly visible congressional Republican plan to address the election emergency is telling.)  However, it must be recognized that all the energy around the House and Senate efforts has created a Republican backlash in Congress that is making it more difficult to support measures that Republicans might otherwise support, such as providing funds to states to pursue the strategies they feel the most comfortable with, without federal prescriptions. In that context, the recent op-ed piece by Michael Steele and Eli Lehrer in the Washington Times encouraging conservatives to get behind expanded vote-by-mail in November is heartening.
  4. States should approach this situation as an emergency, not as an opportunity to make long-term changes to election policy. This is another dimension on which the House and Senate efforts run contrary to the recommendations Nate and I made in the Lawfare post. Both the House and Senate efforts mandate that states make permanent changes to their election laws, and to make long-term investments in technologies. As we note in our post, Florida and New Jersey have previously interpreted state laws flexibly in the face of hurricanes bearing down on them as elections were being conducted, only to return to the status quo after the emergency had passed. Citizens understand extraordinary actions taken in extraordinary situations. To push a major permanent policy shift under the guise of an emergency will be viewed suspiciously by a large segment of the population, and certainly by the political class.
  5. States need to reconsider the division of labor between state and local authorities in the conduct of elections. It is not clear that these efforts address the state-local balance of responsibility directly, nor should they necessarily. However, assuming that most states will be spending the next few months planning how to ramp-up mail-ballot operations quickly, it makes sense to imagine that states will bear greater responsibility for certain new logistical burdens, even in states with strong traditions of local control of elections.
  6. Election officials need to be working with the Postal Service immediately to ensure a smooth transition to expanded mail balloting. These efforts do not address the Postal Service directly, other than provide a vehicle for diverting more business its way—which is a good thing. We all know the USPS has its struggles. Nonetheless, it views its role in conveying ballots with pride. The detail here is that local USPS operations and election officials in states that have had low vote-by-mail volume will now need to create working relationships that have taken years to establish in vote-by-mail states. As with all things related to voting by mail, it takes a while to develop these working relationships. We have to anticipate that there will be local bumps in the road.
  7. States need to communicate clearly to voters how mail ballots will be distributed, and develop plans such that ballots actually get to the voters intended. The House bill requires states to provide systems so that voters can request mail ballots online, and then track then electronically. This is good public policy. I doubt, however, that states without these capacities already will be able to develop them in time for November, unless they are already working to create this capacity. In the past, hastily developed electronic request systems have created security vulnerabilities. And, in general, ballot-tracking systems have taken years, not months, to develop. The harder we push everyone to vote by mail this November, the more we will have to plan for the fact that some voters will not get their ballots mailed to them.
  8. In-person voting won’t go away. This is where I believe the House and Senate efforts fall the shortest. Yes, we need to push more people to vote by mail, on an emergency basis, to protect public health and ensure that the November election will proceed on schedule. Still, there are a lot of reasons to believe that in-person voting will continue to be the dominant mode of voting in 2020, especially when we combine Election-Day and early voting. Other than a general requirement that states develop emergency plans for conducting elections during health emergencies, I don’t read anything in these efforts that particularly target in-person voting.
  9. Election officials need to communicate with the public to address the anxiety that is likely to attend the counting of votes. It is probably too much to ask any legislation considered by Congress to address this point.
  10. Adjustments to voting rules must respect behavioral regularities that voters have demonstrated over the years, and are unlikely to change, even in the midst of a public health crisis. This is tied to point # 8. We have to assume that tens of millions of people will choose to vote in person in November 2020. Legislation that focuses on moving voters to mail balloting doesn’t directly address this fact, other than to reduce the number of in-person voters, which can’t be dismissed. That’s not a trivial thing, but it is important to devote attention to organizing in-person voting to safely accommodate everyone who wishes to vote that way. Furthermore, we have to assume that most voters will not pay attention to COVID-19-avoidance measures for the election until sometime late in October. Again, it is probably too much to ask a single bill to focus on all aspects of the public health emergency, but it is telling that the House and Senate efforts sidestep the significant challenges to public education that face election officials in 2020.

Overall, the House and Senate efforts have received a lot of press attention, but must be understood as a Democratic plan for the 2020 elections, not as a blueprint for a bipartisan solution for the emergency at hand. Even though I agree with the aims of much of the legislation, I suspect that the effort to push a policy agenda so closely allied with Democratic orthodoxy talking point creates a bump in the road toward negotiating the final bailout package. Leaving my reservations aside, the presence of a Republican majority in the Senate and a potential presidential veto make these legislative efforts dead letters, at least in this Congress.

This doesn’t mean they are dead letters in the long term, though. We should remember that an early version of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) was passed by a Democratic Congress in 1991, only to be vetoed by President George H.W. Bush. Despite losing the battle, Democrats tried again in 1993, following the election of Bill Clinton, who signed the NVRA into law.

In the world we live in now, I hope the position-taking among congressional Democrats, to stake out a long-term position about election reform, does not undermine the immediate, pressing issue, which is to give election officials the support they need now, to get done what needs to be done to assure the November 2020 election goes off as planned.

Some Demographics on Voting by Mail

By Charles Stewart III, MIT

With the sudden surge of interest in mail balloting because of the COVID-19 emergency, there’s also been some interest in questions about who tends to use mail ballots now and who would like to use mail ballots. Here is provide some basic demographics related to the question. Because there’s so much going on right now, I won’t provide much commentary, allowing the numbers to “speak for themselves,” which is rarely a good idea.

The tables here address the following questions:

  1.  Who voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election, by salient demographics (i.e., age, race, education, income, partisanship)?
  2. Who supports expanded voting by mail?
  3. How do people return mail ballots?

The data about the usage of mail ballots and demographics mostly comes from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES). Information about support for running elections entirely by mail and the return of mail ballots comes from the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE); I also used the SPAE for information related to the use of mail ballots by people with disabilities.

Patterns of mail-ballot usage and support for mail balloting need to be mindful of the fact that states organize mail balloting differently. Relying on the coding first suggested by the National Conference on State Legislatures, I divide states into four regimes: (1) excuse required for an absentee ballot, (2) no excuse required for an absentee ballot, (3) permanent mail ballot list, and (4) complete vote by mail (or “vote at home”). The following tables maintain this distinction.

Here are the take-aways:

  1. There is very little demographic difference in the use of mail ballots.
  2. The one exception is related to age, where voters older than 65 are more likely to use them than younger voters. (Note that some states, even those that generally require an excuse to vote absentee, allow older voters to vote by mail without an excuse.)
  3. The lack of a major difference between demographic groups is contrary to some claims I have been hearing (and some I believed myself before running the numbers).
  4. Contrary to the claims of some, African Americans appear to be slightly more supportive of vote-by-mail reforms than whites.
  5. Despite being the demographic most likely to take advantage of voting by mail, the age group most in opposition to expanded voting by mail are those 65 and older.  The relationship is strongest in non-vote-by-mail states.
  6. Voters in vote-by-mail states who return their mail ballots in person are more confident their votes were counted than those who mailed them back.
  7. Mail voters in vote-by-mail states are more confident their vote was counted as cast than mail voters in other states.
  8. There is still a substantial fraction of voters in vote-by-mail states that believe that all elections should not be held by mail.

Demographics and the use of mail ballots in 2016.

The following tables report the percentage of voters who report that they voted by mail in 2016. Responses are limited to those whose participation in the election was verified by matching to voter lists. Data source: CCES, unless otherwise noted.

 

Support for holding all elections by mail

The following tables report the percentage of respondents who stated that they supported “holding all elections by mail.” (Source:  SPAE)

 

Return of mail ballots

The following tables report the method of return of mail ballots, along with the relationship between the method of return and confidence that one’s ballot was counted as cast. (Source: SPAE)

Seven Thoughts on Voting in Age of Covid-19

The following is a series of thoughts about the response of the election community in light of the unfolding health emergency. These thoughts are current as of the moment they are written—Monday morning, March 16, 2020—and will no doubt change as the situation evolves.

1. The election must go on. If we want a government headed by elected officials, we have to elect them. There may be opportunities for delaying primary elections, but the date of the November general election is hard-wired, through statute and the constitution. That’s a hard constraint around which we must design a response.

2. Responses to the crisis must be based on the best scientific evidence we have. Evidence about the public health crisis is grounded in medical science, obviously, and we all will be learning from medical and other scientific experts about how to protect ourselves. There is evidence from the social sciences (including management science) that can also be used to inform best practices that are consistent with best medical practice.

3. Confidence in the election must be maintained as accommodations are made. The research suggests that three major factors affect voter confidence: (1) whether your favored candidate won the election, (2) whether you had a good experience when you voted, and (3) whether a major election practice is new. Election administrators can’t (shouldn’t!) influence who wins, but it should be recognized that any change to election practices—even if bolstered by impartial scientific evidence made with the best of nonpartisan intentions—will be interpreted through a partisan lens. If states make changes to election laws without bipartisan buy-in, a “legitimacy tax” will be paid in November. In addition, radical changes to election administration are rarely made in presidential years, and for good reason. Big changes to policy generally require big changes to processes, training, equipment, real estate, etc. Without attention to managing these changes, the voter experience risks taking a hit. Finally, voters in different parts of the country regard certain types of voting as more or less legitimate. To be quite precise about this, voters living in states where everyone, from elected officials to rank-and-file voters, has believed all their lives that mail voting as an invitation to election fraud, are unlikely to spin on a dime in their attitudes.

4. There may be a lot of latitude in current laws already to adapt to the Covid-19 emergency. Incremental changes may get us the rest of the way. Over the past 30 years, there’s been an organic shift in most states toward more convenient ways of voting. Taking the next step in that evolution may be the right avenue for most states. If you already have a huge permanent absentee list, the next step—mailing a ballot to everyone—may not be such a big lift. If you require an excuse to vote absentee, making it clear that the need to enforce social distancing falls under the medical excuse may work. Bottom line: states and localities can ask what sort of flexibility they have within established laws before they take on the task of major reform under current circumstances.

5. We are about to learn a lot about balancing the need to socially distance with the need to socially congregate. Election officials will benefit from that learning. Yes, we need to self-isolate. At the same time, it is likely that feeding stations will need to be set up in urban and suburban areas, kids of parents who fill critical jobs will be send to attend day care in large numbers, and we all will need to go to grocery stores to shop for food. These realities will demand that we learn how to queue up, transact business, and move about in an enclosed environment while minimizing health risks. What we learn from these everyday transactions will inform how election officials will want to approach November.

6. Capacity planning will be as critical as changing voting laws and regulations. All approaches to dealing with the Covid-19 emergency will challenge the capacity of the election process. Even if mail balloting increases by a meager 10% in 2020 (compared to 2016), that will burden election officials significantly. (The “flatten the curve” point being made about spreading out the timeline of Covid-19 infection has it application to election administration, as well.)

7. The campaigns will have an important role to play in helping “spread the vote.” In recent years, the expansion of mail and in-person early voting has been partially driven by the efforts of the political campaigns to encourage people to vote before the Election Day. Of course, they do this because they believe it is politically advantageous. I have no doubt in my mind that efforts by the campaigns in 2020 to encourage supporters to vote early, either by mail or in person, will fall on more receptive ears than in the past.

Guest Blog by Andrew Sinclair: California’s Top-Two Primary

California’s Top-Two Primary, by Andrew Sinclair

After 2020’s “Super Tuesday,” many of the news headlines in California (and the rest of the nation) will focus on the outcome of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination contests. Yet, there are other elections taking place in California at the same time, continuing California’s experiment with the “top-two primary.”

There are actually three types of elections taking place in California. The presidential contest is a traditional partisan primary. Unaffiliated (“no party preference”) voters can participate in the Democratic Party primary if they request a Democratic ballot. Still, the election is partisan in nature: it helps determine which candidate will be the party’s nominee for the November general election. The other two kinds of elections are both variants of nonpartisan elections.

California uses the nonpartisan top-two election procedure for “voter-nominated offices.” This year, these are the State Assembly, State Senate, and U.S. House elections (there are no statewide office or U.S. Senate elections this year). For these elections, every voter can choose between all of the candidates. The two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election in November, even if they come from the same party. Candidates for these offices list their party preference on the ballot. For a short explainer on how this works, Christian Grose (USC) has a great 4-minute description in an interview with NPR: here.

California also holds elections for “nonpartisan offices.” This can be a bit confusing, since the top-two for the voter-nominated offices also is a kind of nonpartisan election – but for these elections (county supervisor, etc.), the candidates also do not list their own party preference on the ballot and, if one candidate gets more than 50% in the primary, that person is simply elected. Otherwise, these are pretty similar to the voter-nominated top-two elections.

California adopted the nonpartisan top-two procedure for voter-nominated offices by passing Proposition 14 in 2010. Michael Alvarez and I wrote a book – Nonpartisan Primary Election Reform: Mitigating Mischief (Cambridge University Press, 2015) – about the first use of the top-two in California in 2012. I have been following along since then as we have learned more in each cycle about how this rule operates.

The top-two procedure is different than what we see in most states, both in the primary and general election (Ian O’Grady and I make this argument in the Routledge Handbook of Primary Elections – which is a nice resource; the other chapters are great). For political scientists, the institutional variation the top-two represents provides an interesting window into primary elections, voter behavior more generally, and the operation of political parties. This post highlights a few things to look for in the 2020 cycle here in California.

Why 2020 is unique.

This will be the fifth cycle with the rules in California, although each election year has taken place in a unique context in terms of top-of-the-ticket races and the state of national politics. The 2020 election will be the first of this era to take place in March, with the Democratic Party’s nomination far from over. With all of the previous primaries in June, California had a more limited role in the 2012 and 2016 presidential primaries. It is also the first of the top-two elections to have no statewide elections (either statewide offices as in 2014 and 2018 or a U.S. Senate election as in 2012, 2016, and 2018).

It may be the case that Republicans, without a meaningful presidential contest or statewide election, will turn out at much lower rates than Democrats. Registered Republican voters make up only 24% of the state’s electorate (as of the Feb. 18 report from the Sec. of State). Since all candidates – Republicans and Democrats alike – are in the same primary for the voter-nominated offices, low turnout for one party can potentially make it hard for that party’s candidates to make it to the November ballot.

What to look for.

How many same-party general elections will there be? In past election cycles, it has still been the case that most primaries sent one Republican and one Democrat to the general election. If the Republican vote does collapse, it is possible that we may see more Democrat-on-Democrat general elections.

Where are the same-party elections? Following up on an observation in the Alvarez-Sinclair book, I (and coauthors Ian O’Grady, Brock McIntosh, and Carrie Nordlund) examined over a couple of cycles where these same-party elections tended to take place. The punchline: the more politically lopsided the district, the more likely it is to see two candidates of the same party advance to the general election. These can make the election a lot more competitive than they likely would be otherwise, too. Does that finding continue to hold?

How well do party-endorsed candidates do? One of the prevailing theories of primary elections is that parties generally do a pretty good job of organizing to back their preferred candidates (for a neat recent book on this, see Hans Hassell’s The Party’s Primary, among others).

What happens to races with crowded fields? In not every contest do the parties manage to keep the number of candidates of their own party down. While somewhat odd results do not happen very often, they can: nearly everyone cites the 2012 Miller-Dutton CD 31 race when they want an example in part because it illustrates a potential issue and in part because there are not many other examples. The idea is that the vote can split across candidates in such a way that the majority party could, if the cards fall exactly right, end up shut out of the general election.

How do moderate candidates do? This was, of course, one of the original claims about the top-two primary (for a nice summary from Eric McGhee at PPIC: here). As Nolan McCarty wrote in his recent book on polarization, results of studies on the impact of the primary reform on polarization are “decidedly mixed.” This is part of the fun of political science – as multiple scholars use different approaches to work towards an understanding of a problem. See work from Christian Grose (here) and Eric McGhee and Boris Shor (here).

Do any incumbents look to face stiff challenges in November? Beyond the question of ideological moderation, it may also be the case that voters can use the top-two to eject candidates from office who have performed poorly (potentially democratically meaningful, even if the replacement is ideologically similar).

What happens with third party/independent candidates? These candidacies have not generally been very successful under the top-two at reaching the general election (although, under the old partisan system, they were also not very successful at winning offices).

Are voters happy with their choices? In the surveys for our book, Michael Alvarez and I found that voters were fairly uncertain about what they expected from the top-two. As they experience it: do they learn about it, and get used to it? Or discover that they don’t like it?

Particular Races to Watch.

Congressional District 8. This used to be Paul Cook’s (R) district; in announcing his retirement, he set off one of the more interesting contests in this cycle. Republican Assemblyman Jay Obernolte won the Republican Party endorsement but there are five Republicans on the ballot in total, including a former candidate for Governor, Tim Donnelly. Yet there are also three Democrats and one NPP candidate on the ballot.

Congressional District 25. This is the Katie Hill seat – and it drew six Democrats, six Republicans, and one NPP candidate. The state Republican Party did not endorse a candidate and there are several potential contenders. The Democratic Party has not issued an endorsement in this race either. To further compound the story, there is a simultaneous special election to fill the remainder of the term.

There are others that will be pretty interesting, but those two are certainly worth checking in on as the returns come in. Of course, it may be quite some time before we really know what the results are for some tightly contested races.

What’s hard to see this week.

The top-two election procedure impacts both the primary and the general election. Some of the research on the top-two points towards finding the most interesting results in the general election. In the surveys Michael Alvarez and I conducted in 2012, we found that mostly voters tried to choose ideologically proximate candidates in the primary. (See also a nice study: Ahler, Citrin, and Lenz: here). But what happens once two candidates of the same party advance to the general election?

There is interesting work now (see Badas and Stauffer 2019) on gender and nonpartisan elections as well as race and ethnicity in same-party general elections under the top-two (see Sadhwani and Mendez 2018). If party is not a cue, voters have to decide somehow; Betsy Sinclair and Michael Wray (2105) found that same-party elections corresponded with increased Google searching just before the election.

One of the more commonly mentioned consequences of same-party elections in November, also, is the possibility that “orphaned” voters will not participate (see Nagler 2015, Masket, via Vox, 2016, Fisk 2019 – Fisk with the on-point title of “No Republican, No Vote”). Yet, many still do participate, and we will have to see over the next several months how candidates in these same-party races try to appeal to these voters. It is possible to get something like what reformers intended (something like the 2012 AD5 race) if a centrist candidate holds on to a sizable enough – if short of a majority – of the voters of their own party, and pulls in just enough of the orphaned voters as well. That’s a delicate balancing act, though, because going too far towards recruiting support from the other party can cost a candidate support within their own.

In the larger picture, I would also say that it can take a long time to assess how political institutions function. Politics is a complicated business, and many of the institutions interact. Some of the scholars referenced here have noted that California passed the top-two procedure and the citizen redistricting process around the same time, making it hard to sort out the impact of each. I also wrote, in a paper on the adoption of the simple majority requirement to pass the state budget (Proposition 25, also in 2010), that it directly impacted one of the main motivations for passing the top-two (to get more moderate legislators, to be able to pass a budget). The election rules also operate within a political context defined by the party and ideological divisions present at the time (I am particularly fond of Hans Noel’s book on the difference between these: link). With different ideological and social cleavages, the rules may also have different consequences.

About the author: Andrew Sinclair is an Assistant Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. He has studied and written about California’s top-two primary process, as well as the primary election procedures in other states.

California’s Super, Super Tuesday: What to Expect

On March 3, California will be one of fourteen states holding primary elections (American Samoa will have caucuses that day). California’s 454 delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be at stake on March 3, meaning that California is a very large prize for candidates still seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

But there’s a very good chance that we will not know the winner of California’s Democratic presidential nomination primary the evening of March 3. In fact, we may not know how California’s delegates will be allocated until much later in March. This will be especially true if there’s no clear front-runner in the Democratic presidential nomination contest by March 3.

So why are we anticipating that we may not know the winner of the Democratic presidential primary in California after polls close on March 3?

California is in the midst of sweeping changes in election administration procedures and voting technologies. While some of these changes started in 2018 in some counties, they are now hitting the larger counties in the state, in particular Orange and Los Angeles Counties. Election officials throughout the state have been working in recent years to make the process of registration, getting a ballot, and returning that marked ballot, much easier and more convenient. And it’s these changes that are likely to introduce significant delays in the tabulation of ballots after the polls close on March 3, and which could well delay the determination of a winner in California’s Democratic primary for days or weeks, if the contest is close statewide.

California election officials have sent out an unprecedented number of ballots by mail. For example, in Orange County the Registrar of Voters has mailed just over 1.6 million absentee ballots to registered voters. Many of those ballots (269,690 as of February 27 in Orange County) have been returned — but the vast majority of them are still in the hands of voters. We estimate that many voters will be dropping their voted absentee ballots in the mail in coming days, or they will drop them off in voting centers between now and Election Day. And if a vote-by-mail ballot is received and validated on or before Election Day, but is received by the election official no later than 3 days after March 3, it will be included in the tabulation. This means that there are likely to be a large number of these by-mail ballots that will be received on Election Day, and in the 3 days following Election Day, that will all need to be processed, validated, and included in the tabulation (mostly after March 3).

Californians who for some reason haven’t registered yet to vote, but who want to register now and participate in the March primary, can do so using what is called “Conditional Voter Registration” (CVR), in which they can register and vote at many locations in their county (usually the county election headquarters, a vote center, or a polling place). It’s unknown how many potentially eligible Californians may take advantage of the the CVR opportunity, but it’s possible that we might see large numbers of conditional registration voters between now and March 3, and of course many of these voters will not have their materials processed, and if they are eligible to vote, to have their ballots included in the tabulation, until after the primary on March 3. If there is a swell of interest in the primary election among currently unregistered but eligible voters, this could significantly slow down the reporting for final results after March 3.

Finally, there is also a good chance that there will be strong turnout on March 3, potentially resulting in crowded voting locations statewide, and producing a very large number of ballots, CVRs applications and provisional ballots, and by-mail ballots dropped off on Election Day. If turnout is strong in in the March primary, the large amount of election material that will need to be reconciled and examined after Election Day could also slow the tabulation process, and could introduce significant delays in the reporting of results.

Now that’s just on the administrative side. It also turns out that the rules governing the allocation of California’s 494 Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates are exceptionally complex, so complex that they will require another blog post. The important issues are that most of the state’s DNC delegates are allocated proportionally to the statewide primary winners, and to the primary winners of the primary in each of the state’s Congressional Districts — but only those candidate receiving more than 15% of the votes cast in either case get delegates. So in order to know the delegate count from California’s Super Tuesday primary, we’ll need accurate counts of the votes cast in each Congressional District, and that could take days or even weeks.

There’s a good chance that we may not know the final delegate count until for a few weeks after the primary. So patience — the process will take time, and let’s give our election officials the opportunity to do their jobs and to produce an accurate tabulation of the results of California’s Super Tuesday March primary.

Twitter Monitoring for the 2020 Super Tuesday Primaries

We’ve launched our Twitter election monitors for the 2020 Super Tuesday primaries, the visualizations are now being posted at Monitoring the Election, or you can see them on GitHub. These data are being collected using a similar process to the one we tested and deployed in 2018. And if you are interested in seeing the code from 2018, here’s a link for that GitHub repo.

The major improvement since 2018 is that we’ve rebuild the code base, and this now runs in the cloud. That should make our collection stream more reliable, and will allow us to scale the collection process to cover additional keywords and hashtags when necessary. These improvements are the subject of a technical paper that is now under development, and we hope to release soon.

We also continue to work on the geo-classifaction of the data we are collecting, and have a few improvements in our process that we’ll roll out soon. These improvements should allow us to monitor social media discussion about the Super Tuesday primaries in Southern California.

The team working on this project includes Nicholas Adams-Cohen (now a post-doc at Stanford University) and Jian Cao (a post-doc here at Caltech).

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.

The Iowa Caucus: A Frustrating Start to Election 2020

Like most observers of elections, I got my bowl of popcorn and turned on the TV last night, expecting to learn more about who “won” the Democratic caucuses in Iowa. I enjoyed the popcorn, but got a bit bored watching the pundits speculating endlessly about why they didn’t have immediate results from the caucuses last night.

While like everyone else, I’d like to learn more about who “won” the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, I’d also like to make sure that when the officials there announce the results, they provide the most accurate results they can — and they provide a detailed explanation for why there has been such a delay in reporting the results.

As my colleagues on the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project and I have said for nearly two decades now, democracy can be a messy business. Elections (including primaries and caucuses) are complex to administer, they inevitably involve new and old technology, and with hundreds of thousands of people participating they take time to get right. I suggest that we all take a deep breath, let the Iowa Democratic Party figure it all out, and be patient. It’s much better for American democracy, and for the confidence of voters and stakeholders, if we get accurate results and an explanation for the delay, rather than hurried and incorrect results.

And for the rest of this election cycle, I suggest continued patience. As we move further into the primary season, and then into the fall general election, issues like what we are now witnessing in Iowa will continue to arise. It’s likely that on Super Tuesday we might not know who “won” California immediately after the polls close that evening, for example. But we should let election officials have the time and space to get the results right, and to be transparent and open with the public about why delays or issues arise in the administration and tabulation of elections.

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.

The 2018 Voting Experience

My fellow VTP Co-director, Charles Stewart III and some of his research team, released an important study last week: “The 2018 Voting Experience: Polling Place Lines.” Charles and his team continue to find that long lines can be an issue in many states and election jurisdictions. They estimated that in 2018, 5.7% of those who tried to vote on Election Day waited more than 30 minutes to vote, and that this was significantly longer than what they had found in the previous federal midterm election in 2014. Importantly, they also show that wait times are not distributed uniformly across the electorate, with nonwhite and voters in densely populated areas waiting longer to vote than whites and voters in less densely populated areas. Finally, as they note that wait times are strongly correlated with a voter’s overall experience at the polls, long wait times are an issue that needs continued attention in the United States. This is especially true as we are heading into what may be a very closely contested array of state and federal primary and general elections in 2020, where many states and jurisdictions may see much higher turnout than in 2016 and 2018.