A Viewer’s Guide to Special Election Watch

Today starts a regular feature of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab called “Special Election Watch.”  The idea is to follow special elections in 2018 as a guide to the extent of the Democratic swing in the November 2018 election.  First, a couple of words of background, and then a guide to the graph we will be updating regularly.

Political scientists have long followed the partisan “swing” from one election to the other.  Analysis of the “uniform national swing” has been a staple of discussing British politics going back to the 1940s.  The question of whether the swing is so uniform in the U.S. has a distinguished pedigree, perhaps most notably represented by a small book by Tom Mann, Unsafe at Any Margin, in 1979 and an article by Gary Jacobson,  “The Marginals Never Vanished” in 1988.

Despite the fact that the partisan swing of electoral fortunes varies across districts in a particular election, the average swing across districts is a good starting point for gauging the degree to which one of the political parties will be favored.

Which brings us to the special election watch.  It’s widely accepted that 2018 will be a good electoral year for the Democrats.  But, by how much?  One common measure is the so-called generic congressional poll.  Another way to measure relative electoral strength is to calculate the change in electoral fortunes of the parties as they defend legislative seats in special elections.  That’s the approach we’ll be following here.

Ballotpedia’s 2018 election calendar currently lists over 40 special elections between now and June for state legislative seats.  As each one is held, we’ll be following the returns and comparing them to the results when the seat was last contested, usually in 2016.  The accompanying graph shows the results for this year’s special elections up to last Tuesday. (Click on the graph to biggify it.)

Here’s the guide to how to read the graph.  Each row represents a state legislative special election, with the district indicated on the left and the date of the election on the right.  The code for the district is the postal state code + “H” for House or “S” for Senate + district number.  The circle represents the percentage of the vote received by the Republican candidate in the last regular election; it’s red if the Republican won and blue if the Democrat won.  The arrow points to the Republican percentage in the special election; the arrow is red if the Republican won the special election and blue if the Democrat won.  At the very bottom, we show the average.

As of last Tuesday, taking all the special elections into account, the average swing has been about 16 points in favor of Democratic candidates.

Of course, there is more to this graph than just the average.  For instance, a large number of these seats were originally won without a contest.  Indeed, of the 15 elections shown here, 8 were originally won without a contest, 6 by Republicans and 2 by Democrats.  Not surprisingly, the average pro-Democratic swing was greatest in the previously uncontested seats (27 points) than in the seats that had been contested (4 points).  About half of all state legislative races were uncontested in 2016. If the patterns in the special elections hold in the general elections, we can expect a sharp drop in uncontested elections at the state level, which will be a significant event in itself.

This past week, there has been considerable press coverage of the special election in the 97th Missouri House district, which flipped to the Democratic column after it had given Donald Trump a large majority in 2016.  While seat-flipping is certainly notable, the larger story was the overall mobilization of Democratic voters in the four Missouri districts that had special elections on the same day.  Two of the districts (the 39th and 144th) had gone uncontested in 2016.  The fact that these districts attracted strong Democratic candidates, one of whom came close to winning, is almost as important as the Democratic victory in the 97th, at least from the perspective of measuring the relative appeal of the two parties’ legislative candidates these days.

The 2018 election year is just starting.  It’s a long way to November.  However, as Gary Jacobson and Sam Kernell taught us in their classic book, Strategy and Choice in Congressional Elections, the most important events of a congressional election year happen at the beginning, when the candidates, parties, and potential backers size up the field.  So far, the elections that are currently being held are consistent with even more good Democratic candidates jumping in and even more good Republicans staying (or moving to) the sidelines.


The Public Says Good-Bye to the Trump Vote-Fraud Commission, Part IV: Messaging about Fraud

This is the fourth of a four-part series looking at public attitudes related to President Trump’s fraud commission.  Part I introduced the series and explored whether voters had become more concerned about vote fraud since late 2016.  Part II explored who was knowledgeable about the commission.  Part III examined public opinion about the termination of the commission.  Today, I look at messaging about voter fraud, and then offer up some summary thoughts about the work of the commission, its termination, and the future.

Messaging about voter fraud

The value of a presidential commission is that it draws attention to an issue and can serve as a focal point as public opinion is mobilized for policy change.  Both ardent supporters and opponents of the Presidential Commission on Election Integrity saw the commission as filling this role in the case of vote fraud and voter registration.

Because the most prominent member of the commission, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, has developed a reputation as a determined opponent of voter fraud, it was reasonable to expect that had the commission continued conducting business, it would have been an amplifier of claims about the high prevalence of voter fraud in the U.S.  The commission never served this function, both because of its premature demise and because the news surrounding the commission was muddied by its controversy.

However, let’s consider the counterfactual.  What if the commission had not been terminated, and what if Kobach’s message about high rates of fraud had been given clear expression?  What would the effects of this messaging be?

We’re helped in answering this question by Kobach, who was interviewed by Breitbart on the subject of voter fraud on the day the commission was terminated.  In that interview, Kobach claimed that the vote fraud commission had revealed:

  • 938 convictions for voter fraud since the year 2000
  • Fewer than 1 in 100 cases ends in a conviction
  • In Kansas, alone, there are 127 known cases of non-citizen aliens registering to vote
  • In 21 states, there were 8,471 cases of double voting discovered

I turned these claims into a question that was asked of my survey respondents. (Go back to the previous posts to see details about the sample and other analysis.)  In particular, I randomly presented one of these claims to each respondent, identifying it as having been made by “the vice chair of the fraud commission.”  I then asked, “Does this statement make you more or less concerned about voter fraud?”

A plurality of respondents (47%) said they were unmoved by the statement they were shown, 40% said it made them more concerned about fraud, and 13% said they were less concerned.  (See Table 1.) Most Democrats said their views were unchanged; most Republicans said they were more concerned.


Table 1.  Question:  Does [the statement you were just shown] make you more or less concerned about voter fraud?
All respondents (N = 2000) Democrats (N=851) Republicans (N=652)
More concerned 40% 30% 55%
Less concerned 13% 16% 9%
No change 47% 55% 36%

Thus, the respondents processed claims about voter fraud through the lens of partisanship.  This is consistent with much of the modern research into the effects of persuasive communicates, which generally teaches us that people readily internalize information that confirms prior beliefs and reject information that is dis-confirming.

This process is typically the most potent among the most politically engaged, who are the most aware about “what goes with what,” that is, most aware of the positions associated with the two parties.  And, true enough, that pattern shows up here, as well.  For instance, while 55% of Democrats stated that the statement they read about voter fraud did not change their concerns about fraud, 72% of the “hyper-aware” Democrats said they were unmoved.  (Recall, the “hyper-aware” respondents were those who both (1) closely followed news about the commission and (2) could pick out Kobach as a member of the commission.)  Among hyper-aware Republicans, 61% said they were even more concerned about fraud after reading the statement, compared to 55% of Republicans overall. 

In other words, among the most engaged partisans, being presented with a claim about voter fraud just pushed them further apart from each other.

A similar pattern also emerges when we examine the responses to these statements in light of how concerned the respondents said they were about vote fraud at the start of the survey. (See Figure 1).  Among those who initially said they were the least concerned about vote fraud, 73% said that the statement they read about fraud didn’t change their mind.  Among those who initially identified themselves as being the most concerned about fraud, 72% said the statement made them even more concerned.

As an aside, the pattern in Figure 1 persists among all levels of attention to the commission, or even all levels of attention to politics in general.  What this means is that attitudes about vote fraud are probably already pretty entrenched among citizens, and that claims about fraud have little-to-no influence on those attitudes, at least in the short run.

Among the four statements, which had the greatest effect on concerns about fraud? Table 2 provides the answer to the question.

Table 2.  Effect of statement read to respondent on respondent’s self-report about change in attitudes about vote fraud. (N=1,998)
More concerned Less concerned No change
938 convictions for fraud since 2000 30% 18% 52%
Over 100,000 cases of voter fraud prosecuted since 2000 35% 11% 55%
127 known cases of non-citizen voters in Kansas 47% 11% 42%
8,471 cases of double voting in 21 states 47% 12% 41%

What stands out here is the fact that the last two comments tended to elicit more expressions of additional concern than the first two.  Figuring out why this is requires some speculation, because each of the items mixes and matches stimuli.  Still, it strikes me that the last two items pertain to specific types of voter fraud (non-citizen voting and double voting), whereas the first two items refer to fraud in general terms.  It is possible that specific cases of fraud are more compelling than the general problem of fraud.  Or, it is possible that non-citizen and double voting in particular are especially compelling ways to frame the fraud question.  In any event, I am sure that others who are more expert in the field of persuasive communications than I am will be exploring this question further.

*      *      *

This has been a fast-and-furious tour of the new survey data about the Trump fraud commission and its termination.  I hope to be writing more about this in the weeks and months ahead.  For now, it is important to note that support for the commission and its termination was not as firmly linked to partisan attitudes as attitudes about fraud itself.  I have gone on record as saying that the termination of the commission only shifts the politics of vote fraud to other venues.  It remains to be seen whether those venues will be seen as having greater authority than the commission, and thus (perhaps) greater influence on what the public believes about fraud.

One reassuring message from the survey responses is that even Americans who were the most concerned about voter fraud were not up in arms about the commission’s termination.  This suggests an opening for bipartisan endeavors to secure the voting rolls that may be effective with the broad middle of public opinion.  There are already effective models of such efforts, ranging from states that carefully adhere to the NVRA, to the Electronic Registration Information Center.  Efforts such as these are likely to be more effective in securing voter registration lists while maintaining access to the ballot box than promoting messages that polarize attitudes further than they already are.

The Public Says Good-Bye to the Trump Vote-Fraud Commission, Part III: Opinions about Termination

This is the third of a four-part series looking at public attitudes related to President Trump’s fraud commission.  Part I introduced the series and explored whether voters had become more concerned about vote fraud since late 2016.  Part II explored who was knowledgeable about the commission.  In today’s post, I look at support for the commission’s termination.

Among the respondents who said they had heard of the commission (which as 79% of respondents), 44% agreed with the commission’s termination at least somewhat, 31% disagreed, and 25% had no opinion.  (See Table 1.)  Among the aware, 53% agreed with the termination.  This rises to 63% among the hyper-aware.

Table 1.  Question:  Do you agree or disagree with President Trump’s decision to terminate the election fraud commission?
All respondents (N = 1,568) Democrats (N = 700) Republicans (N=531)
Strongly agree 27% 41% 17%
Somewhat agree 17% 13% 25%
Somewhat disagree 17% 11% 24%
Strongly disagree 14% 18% 8%
Don’t know 25% 17% 26%
No response 0.3% 0.1% 0.0%

The relatively large number of “don’t know” responses is typical, in my experience, when asking about questions related to election administration.  Not surprisingly, Democrats were more likely to agree with the termination (54%) than Republicans (42%) and more likely to have an opinion, as well (17% “don’t know” vs. 26% for Republicans).  Given the large percentage of Republicans who expressed concern over fraud in the first question, the big surprise here is that a plurality of Republicans actually agreed with the commission’s termination — a majority if we exclude the respondents who had no opinion.

Another surprise is the relatively large number of Democrats who strongly disagreed with the commission’s termination. In fact, more Democrats disagreed with the commission’s termination than Republicans.  Part of the reason for this is that Democrats were just more likely to express an opinion, but even among those expressing opinions, Democrats were more likely to disagree.

Who are these Democrats?  First, they were much more likely to say they were very concerned about vote fraud at the outset (45%, vs 8% of all other Democrats).  They were also more likely to say they were moderate (44%) than other Democrats (38%).  They were also less attentive to politics in general and were much less likely to identify Kris Kobach as a commission member (32%) than other Democrats (68%).

Thus, the Democrats who strongly disagreed with the commission’s termination were not especially attentive to the commission’s work and had more ideologically moderate views than the rest of their co-partisans.  In contrast, the Republicans who strongly disagreed with the termination of the commission were not all that different from the rest of their party.

It is quite possible that the Democrats who strongly disagreed with the commission’s termination simply had the wrong idea about what the commission’s charge was.  Unfortunately, the limitations of this survey didn’t allow me to probe that question further.

In the end, the public seemed relatively satisfied to see the fraud commission go away.  Whether they would have had the same opinion had the commission been able to pursue its mission through 2018 is something we will never know.

Tomorrow’s post: The effectiveness of claims about vote fraud.

The Public Says Good-Bye to the Trump Vote-Fraud Commission, Part II: Knowledge of the Commission

This is the second part of a four-part series concerning public attitudes toward the Trump Vote-Fraud Commission.  The first part includes an overview of the series, some information about the survey methodology itself, and a substantive section on attitudes about fraud.  Today, I take on the issue of knowledge about the commission itself.

President Trump’s fraud commission is one of those inside-baseball issues that elicits three types of reactions: (1) strong, informed reaction among the most politically knowledgeable, (2) strong, uninformed reaction among a larger group of engaged political spectators, and (3) a variety of “non-opinions” among the rest.  I used two questions to see how closely the public followed the commission’s work, to see if we could discern differences of opinion among these three groups.

First, I simply asked respondents to report which of a series of statements most closely described how closely they had followed the commission’s work.  Table 1 shows those statements, and the fraction of respondents who chose each.


Table 1.  Question:  Which of the following statements most closely describes how much you paid attention to President Trump’s election fraud commission before you took this survey? (N=2,000; 0.06% gave no response)
I really hadn’t heard about it before.


I had heard about it, but I didn’t pay much attention to it.


I had heard about it, and remember reading a little bit about it.


I had heard about it, and followed news about it with interest.



Overall, the public appeared to be split about 50/50 between those who paid at least some attention to the commission and those who didn’t.  Democrats and Republicans followed it in roughly similar proportions, 51% for Democrats and 54% for Republicans.

Of course, the nature of questions like this is that people tend to over-report being attentive to the news of the day.  To try and get a sense about how closely people really followed the commission, I also gave the respondents a test, to see if they knew of the commission’s most prominent member, Kris Kobach.

I asked them, “Based on what you might have read or heard about the voter fraud commission, which of the following prominent election officials served as one of its leaders?”  I then gave them four choices, which were shown to respondents in random order.  One choice was Kobach.  The other three were prominent election administrators from around the country, none of whom served on the commission.

Overall, 40% of respondents correctly picked Kobach.  Of those who reported that they had followed news about the commission with interest, 60% got the answer right.  Among everyone else, only 35% got it right, a result barely better than chance.

These results aren’t intended to play “gotcha” with the American public, but rather, to show that it is easy for those of us in the election administration world to over-estimate the attention being paid to things like the fraud commission.

For the rest of this post, I will call the people who reported that they had followed news about the commission with interest “aware” (21% of respondents) and those among this group who correctly picked out Kobach as the “hyper-aware” (13%).


Tomorrow’s post:  opinions about termination

The Public Says Good-Bye to the Trump Voter-Fraud Commission: Introduction to a Series

This post begins a four-part series about some public opinion research I recently did to gauge attitudes about the termination of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.  The survey was conducted in late January of a representative sample of adults, sample size of 2,000.  There’s more to be said from this data than can fit into one blog post, which is why I’ve decided to stretch it out across four days.

To whet your appetite for what is to come, here’s the executive summary of the whole series:

  • Respondents were slightly more concerned about voter fraud in January 2018 than immediately before the 2016 election.
  • Respondents were split about 50/50 in whether they followed the work of President Trump’s fraud commission.
  • 44% of respondents agreed with the commission’s termination at least somewhat, 31% disagreed, and 25% had no opinion. A majority of Democrats and a plurality of Republicans approved of its termination.  More knowledgeable respondents were more likely to agree with the termination.
  • Respondents who reported they were already the most concerned about vote fraud report becoming even more concerned about vote fraud when read statements making claims about the frequency of fraud.

Today, I introduce the subject of the series and evidence about overall opinions about vote fraud.  In subsequent days I will touch on knowledge of the commission, options about terminating the commission, and some evidence about messaging concerning vote fraud.

Introduction to the Series

Almost a month ago, President Donald Trump terminated his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.  The commission’s request during the summer for states’ voter files set its early life off to a rocky start, and helped create a degree of bipartisan opposition among election administrators that was surprising in its near-unanimity.

Many were worried that the commission would create doubts in the public’s mind about the integrity of the electoral system.  Democrats were especially worried that the commission’s work would lend credibility to discredited claims that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election.  This could have laid the groundwork for the weakening of voter-registration-protection provisions in the National Voter Registration Act, the “motor voter” law.

We’ll never be able to test whether the greatest fears of the commission’s opponents came to fruition, but we can catch a small glimpse into how the public thought about the commission’s work during its truncated lifetime, and its demise.

To capture a snapshot of public attitudes, I commissioned YouGov to ask a small battery of questions about election fraud and the commission’s demise to 2,000 respondents last week.  (The poll was in the field between January 23 and 26, 2018.  It would have been in the field earlier, but university IRBs move slowly, as they should.)

The questions I asked were intended, first, to see if attention to and worry about voter fraud had changed in the year that has passed since the 2016 election.  I was also interested in whether the public had knowledge about the commission at all, and whether they approved of its termination.  Finally, I wanted to see whether the types of messages the commission may have publicized, had it not been terminated, would have resonated with the public.

There were two major take-aways for me.  The first had to do with the facts.  About half of Americans followed the commission, though a small minority followed it very closely.  The public has become slightly more concerned about voter fraud, compared to the pre-2016 election period, with Democrats showing the most movement.  The public mostly supports the termination of the commission, with Democrats strongly supporting its termination and Republicans being more equivocal.

The second take-away relates to how public opinion works in this partisan era.  For the past decade, as partisanship has started to structure so much of how Americans view politics, the major framing device to understand this phenomenon has been something called “motivated reasoning.”  Applied to opinion about public policy, motivated reasoning helps us understand how citizens interpret new information, including conflicting information, through a partisan lens.  It also helps us understand how people with extreme views just keep getting more extreme.  As we’ll see, when presented with claims about evidence of voter fraud, respondents who were already the most concerned about voter fraud became even more concerned.  The respondents who were the least concerned about fraud out the outset either became less concerned, or didn’t change their stance, when presented with the same claims.

Overall opinions about voter fraud

To start, I asked respondents how concerned they were about voter fraud, along a five-point scale.  The distribution of responses is given in Table 1.


Table 1.  Question:  The following are two statements that might be used to describe voting and elections.  Using the scale provided, please indicate which statement more closely describes how you feel. (N = 2,000; 9% gave no response)
I am not concerned about vote fraud


2 3 4 5

I am concerned about vote fraud

18% 14% 17% 17%


For simplicity’s sake, let’s call people who rated themselves a 1 or 2 “not concerned” and those who rated themselves a 4 or 5 “concerned.”  Among the respondents, 43% said they were concerned, and 32% said they were not.  (Another 17% were in the middle, plus the 9% who did not respond to the question.)  Not surprisingly, more Republicans (61%) said they were concerned than Democrats (31%).

In contrast, when I asked the identical question in the CCES right before the 2016 election, 37% were concerned and 40%, were not. This shift in opinion across the year — 6 percentage points more saying they were concerned and 8 points fewer saying they were not — is small, but statistically significant.

One interesting detail in this shift is that Democrats, more than Republicans, have moved in the direction of being concerned about fraud over the past year.  A bit over a year ago, 21% of Democrats said they were concerned about vote fraud, compared to 31% last week.  In contrast, 57% of Republicans said they were concerned about voter fraud in 2016, barely any different from the most recent results.

It’s not obvious why Democrats would state they were more worried about fraud across the past year and not Republicans.  One possibility is that Democrats and Republicans have different ideas about what constitutes voter fraud when considered in the abstract.  Democrats may be more likely to think about Russian hacking while Republicans may be thinking about double-voting and non-citizen voting.  Still, there’s a built-in asymmetry in the debate about voter fraud, however it’s defined.  It’s easier to illustrate cases of vote fraud, even when they’re rare, than to illustrate the lack of fraud, similar to the problem of proving a negative.  Plus, Republicans were already much more concerned about voter fraud than Democrats, so that Democrats could more easily be moved in the “worried” direction.

In any event, it looks like the public has moved slightly in the direction of being more concerned about fraud.  Whether that movement was caused by the commission’s work is unclear.  (I suspect the direct causal effect was slight.)  Had the commission been able to continue its business, and had been able to maintain a unified narrative (which is a big “if”), it does appear that public opinion was trending in the direction that was sympathetic to the commission leadership’s policy agenda.


Tomorrow’s post: Knowledge about the Commission

Small blue shift in Alabama canvass

A few years ago Ned Foley identified a growing trend in post-election canvasses:  there is a tendency, at least in presidential elections, for the Democratic share of the vote to grow between the initial election-night count and the final, official canvass of the vote.  He referred to this as a “big blue shift,” paying homage to the association of the Democratic Party with the color blue.  Ned and I have written together on this, including a conference paper that I hope we can resurrect soon, and a Monkey Cage/Washington Post op-ed we published on the morning of the 2016 election.

While there is no claim that the blue shift will show up in every election, changes to election laws over the past two decades have created a set of ballots that require special handling, and which are often only resolved in the days and weeks following the election.  The largest set of these ballots are absentees, which have been weakly (and inconsistently) trending Democratic over time, followed by provisional ballots, which are much more regularly Democratic.

Therefore, it’s not surprising to see that Doug Jones benefited by a very small blue shift in the Alabama vote count following the recent special election.  The election night count had Jones at 49.92% of the vote, to Moore’s 48.38%, or a difference of 1.54 points.  The official canvass, which has just been certified, had Jones at 49.97% of the vote, to Moore’s 48.34%, or a difference of 1.62 points.

This is a tiny difference, but it was pervasive in the state, as the accompanying graph shows.  (If you want to read the details, I’m afraid you’ll need to print it out and use a magnifying glass.  Click on the graph to enlargify it.)

Here’s how to read the graph.  Alabama’s counties are sorted according to their election night percentage for Jones, with the most pro-Jones counties on top.  Deviations from the election night percentage are shown.  The dashed line directly to the right of the 0% line is the statewide average shift toward Jones.

It’s easy to see here how relatively uniform the shift was across the counties.  The Jones percentage of the vote increased in 54 counties, declined in 7 and didn’t change in the remaining 6.  In only 8 counties was the magnitude of the difference greater than a tenth of a percentage point, and only one of those (Mobile) could be considered a large county.  (Jefferson County, the state’s largest county, which got beat up in Roy Moore’s filing attempting to delay certifying the vote, came out almost exactly at the state average.)

Why the blue shift occurred in this particular election is still an open question.  I haven’t seen a full accounting of domestic absentee, UOCAVA, and provisional ballots yet, but would suspect that provisional ballots dominated in this case.  In Mobile County, at least, absentee ballots and provisional ballots came in 70.2% and 81.8%, respectively, for Jones, compared to Jones’s overall county vote of 57.3%.  But, that’s just one county.

Election officials often say that their job isn’t to get the vote count fast, but to get it right.  Here we see in Alabama a small example of how vote totals shift from election night to the final canvass.  Given the controversy surrounding the election, it was probably a blessing that Jones had won the election night count, even by a little, so that the blue shift didn’t enter into the post-election count.  One can only imagine what would have happened had Moore been ahead on election night…

Much ado about nothing in Alabama “fraud” charges

At the risk of being lost down a rabbit hole and subject to endless trolling, I just have to weigh in on the so-called evidence of vote fraud that was contained in Roy Moore’s court filing, in which he tried to get a delay in having the vote certified.  (The reason I decided to plow ahead is that Moore’s filing points out an interesting pattern in the precinct returns — it’s just that it’s not evidence of vote fraud.)

There are a lot of claims made in Moore’s filing, and I don’t pretend to have time to take them all on.  The one that has the look of seriousness is based on some number crunching by Philip Evans, an electrical engineer from South Carolina who has taken a look at the precinct-level election returns from Jefferson County (Birmingham) and declared them to be impossibly skewed — or, as Mr. Evans  puts it, based on analyzing more than one hundred elections, “never has there been the level of statistical proof on the scale of Jefferson County” that the results were fabricated.

What’s this proof?  It’s nothing more than calculating the percentage of voters in a precinct who voted for Moore and then calculating the percentage of voters in a precinct who voted “Republican” for the straight ticket line.  (Recall, that it was possible to vote for Moore in Alabama “without voting for Moore,” by simply voting Republican on the straight-ticket line.  Such a vote would mean a vote for every Republican on the ballot — which in this case was simply Roy Moore.)

The analysis then simply shows the distribution of this difference (Moore % – Straight Republican %) for each precinct.  Here is a screen shot of the graph Mr. Evans uses. (Click on the graph to enbiggen it.)

Every precinct on the left side of the graph had a higher percentage of voters vote straight Republican (among those who voted the straight party line for any party) than voted for Moore (among those who voted directly for the candidates themselves.)

For starters, the gist of the argument is that the figure above doesn’t follow a normal distribution, which alone is evidence of fabricated election results.  I know of no reason the distribution should follow the normal distribution.  Most of the political world isn’t distributed normally (or Poisson, or uniform, or any other favored distribution).  That’s a red herring.

The real issue is whether the relationships between variables look anomalous.  The graph above didn’t answer the question about relationships, so the first thing I did was to recast it in a way that explores the implied relationship among variables that are conflated when we just gaze at a single distribution.  So, I created a graph of the % of the vote that Moore received purely as a candidate against the % of the vote that the Republican Party got on the straight-party line.  This is what that graph looks like. (Click to enlarge.)

The data are as described in the previous paragraph.  The solid gray line is the 45-degree line.  The dashed line is a non-linear best fit to the data.  (For those keeping score, this is a lowess fit.)

Note that the red precincts — the one Moore called “anomalous” — are relatively competitive.  In fact, given that Jefferson is a Democratic county, these are relatively strong Republican precincts for the county.

So, it appeared that Moore as a stand-alone candidate under-performed in moderately Republican precincts in Jefferson County, compared to those who voted a straight ticket.

The Moore court filing suggests that patterns like this can’t be explained.  Quite the contrary.  The precincts that the Moore campaign seem so worried about are precisely the types of places that commentators were speculating about ahead of the election:  solidly Republican areas that just couldn’t stomach voting for Moore.  Also, because these are precincts where party loyalties are closely balanced, I would bet that they are full of voters that political scientists call “pivotal,” that is, voters who could go either way in an election.  Again, these were precisely the voters who were up for grabs in the special election.  And, it’s also these precincts where you might expect to find more Republicans “voting the party, not the man.”

Finally, there’s the empirical issue of how correlated “candidate-only votes” and “party votes” are at the precinct level in a less controversial election.  Turns out, they’re not as highly correlated as you would expect.  For instance, the following analysis reproduces my scatterplot, this time using the precinct election returns from Jefferson County in the 2016 presidential election.

Here, I’ve highlighted “outlier” precincts in red, using the same criterion as before.  (I.e., the red precincts are more than 20 points away from the diagonal line.)  Unlike the special election, there is a bit more symmetry on both sides of the line.  Still, Trump as a candidate was more likely to under-perform the Republican straight-ticket line than Clinton was to under-perform the Democratic line.  And, the under-performance was more common in precincts that moderately leaned one way or the other — again, the type of precinct where you might find more wavering partisans, because of the context in which they live.

So, the pattern that was used by the Moore campaign to claim fraud was different in details from 2016 in Jefferson County, but only in the details.  In 2016, both parties arguably had flawed candidates, and thus it’s not surprising we would see the parties’ candidates under-perform their party in a few precincts.  Nor is it surprising that the precincts where they under-performed would be relatively central to the overall partisan space.

To conclude, I’m the last person in the world to say you shouldn’t mine through election data looking for evidence of erroneous election returns, either due to fraud or human error.  But, finding what appears to be anomalies is just the beginning.  The next step is that the person suspecting fraud owes it to everyone to consider alternative explanations.  In the case of the 2017 Alabama special election, what appears to be anomalous is easily explained in terms of well-known campaign dynamics — and may not be as anomalous as it first appears.  Finally, any charge of fraud (or human error) needs a mechanism to hang the story on.  There was just no plausible mechanism proposed in Alabama.  (The implied mechanisms were so out-there that they don’t deserve to be mentioned.)

Doug Jones won in a fair fight.  If the Republicans want to win the seat back, they’ll have to get it back in a fair fight.


Interesting residual vote pattern in Alabama

Many people know that I’m interested in the residual vote rate, which is the  percentage of ballots that do not have a countable vote for a particular race.  A residual vote is either an over-vote or an under-vote.  Residual votes were at the core of the 2000 recount fiasco in Florida, where hanging or pregnant chad led to under-votes, and where weird ballot designs such as the “caterpillar ballot” caused over-votes.

What did the residual vote rate look like in the Jones/Moore race in Alabama?  According to preliminary election results published by the Alabama Secretary of State’s office,  of the 1,346,146 Alabamians who went to the polls last Tuesday, 1,779 cast no vote in the Senate contest.  That’s 0.13% of turnout, which is a pretty small number.  Still it’s not zero.

Why would a voter go to the polls in a hotly contested race and not vote in the contest?  There are at least four possibilities:  (1) The voter felt a civic duty to turn out, but couldn’t bring himself to vote for one of the candidates.  (2) The voter made a mistake when marking the ballot and didn’t leave a legal mark.  (3)  The machine failed to read the legal mark.  (4)  The voter turned out to vote in another contest, and abstained in the hot contest.

It turns out that reason # 4 was a major driver of the residual vote in Alabama last Tuesday.  We can see this in the following graph, which plots the residual vote rate for each county in the U.S. Senate special election.  (Click on the graph for a bigger view.)

I have labeled the nine counties that are outliers.  What sets them apart from the rest of the counties?  With the exception of Choctaw, they all had other things on the ballot, generally taxation or millage questions.  Considering how salient issues of local taxation can be, it’s not surprising that some Alabamians in the eight counties with referendum items would have shown up to vote about taxes, but not about the Senate.

How many voters might this be?  No many.  A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that only about 127 voters showed up in these 8 counties to vote for taxes but not for senator.

Similarly, it’s possible to use simple statistical techniques to estimate approximately what fraction of the residual vote rate was due to these additional ballot questions, or similarly, what would the residual vote rate have been if no counties had put tax questions on their ballots.  The residual vote rate In the 59 counties without tax questions was 0.06%, compared to 0.51% in the eight other counties.  A little algebra suggests that about half of the statewide residual votes in the Senate election were due to voters showing up for tax questions and skipping the Senate rate.

One final word about voting machines:  The residual vote rate, if used properly, can be a valuable tool to diagnose inaccuracies in voting machines.  One way this can be done is just by comparing the residual vote rate across different machines.  In Alabama, if we do that with the Senate race, we see that counties using the DS 200 scanner had a significantly higher residual vote rate than counties that used the Model 100s (0.17% vs. 0.07%).  However, this is entirely due to the fact that most (7/8) of the counties that had tax questions on the ballot used DS 200s.  Controlling for whether a referendum was on the ballot in a county reduces the difference between scanners to virtually zero.

None of this, by the way, explains what happened in Choctaw County, which was the only outlier county with no tax questions on the ballot.  It’s a very small county (4,240 voted), so that a small number of residual votes (18) can produce a residual vote rate that stands out by comparison.  This might just be a “law of small numbers” issue, but it also might reflect something the county probate judge might look into.

Choctaw County, the only outlier with no tax questions on the ballot, is explained by the fact that the election results posted on the Secretary of State’s website don’t report any write-ins.  However, the results reported by AL.com do show 17 write-in votes in Choctaw.  So, it’s not an outlier after all.  (Thanks to Justin Levitt for pointing out my error here.)  Lowndes County also doesn’t have any write-ins recorded on the SOS’s website, although AL.com does.  However, Lowndes also had three school tax questions on the ballot.  Accounting for the 13 additional write-ins in Lowndes leaves it an outlier, just less of an outlier.


It’s Not Always the Votes You Get, It’s Where You Get the Votes: Another Looks at the Democrat’s Surprising Surge in Virginia’s House of Delegates

The most surprising result of last week’s Virginia election was the dramatic gain in Democratic seats in the lower chamber of the state legislature, the House of Delegates (HOD).  Democrats improved their situation, rising to a likely 49 seats (pending recounts) in the 100-seat chamber, from a lowly 34.

Why this big surge in Democratic fortunes?  If we compare last week’s results with 2015 and 2017, two dynamics stand out:

  1. Democratic candidates of all sorts won more votes in 2017 than in 2013 or 2015.
  2. The increase in Democratic votes was targeted in purple HOD districts.

In other words, Democrats did better in most of the state, but especially in Purple Virginia.

To demonstrate the fact, it’s impossible to use votes received by HOD candidates, because there have been so many uncontested races in recent years.  Instead, it’s necessary to use votes received by partisan candidates at the top of the ticket, that is, candidates who were on the ballot even when the HOD race was uncontested.

In particular, it is possible to take the votes for governor that were cast in a HOD district and use those votes as a proxy for the partisan leanings of the district.  That’s a fine thing to do for 2017, but there was no gubernatorial race in Virginia in 2015.  As a consequence, it’s impossible to use the method I will employ in this post to compare 2017 with 2015.

Instead, I will compare 2017 with 2013.  Luckily, HOD outcomes were nearly identical in 2013 and 2015 — Democrats won 33 seats in 2013 and 34 in 2015.

Let me take the two dynamics identified above in order.

Democratic candidates of all sorts won more votes in 2017 than in 2013.

For starters, Ralph Northam won 54.5% of the two-party vote, compared to 51.4% for Terry McAuliffe in 2013.  If we include minor party and write-in candidates in the denominator, these percentages are 53.9% and 47.8%, respectively.  Thus, statewide, the Democratic swing from 2013 to 2017 was either 3.4 points or 6.1 points, depending on which denominator you use.

One fast-and-dirty way to gauge the effect of this swing on the HOD election results, is to count up the races in 2013 in which the Republican victory margin was less than the 2013-2017 swing.  If the 2013-2017 swing was uniform across districts (more on this below), then these are  the districts most likely to have been flipped by the change in Democrats’ fortunes.

Using the two-party vote share, 7 Democrats lost by less than 3.4 percentage points in 2013; using the swing that includes all candidates’ votes, 8 Democratic candidates lost by less than 6.1 points.  Thus, around 8 seats probably flipped to the Democrats in 2017 simply because of the statewide swing in votes.  Of course, this is only half the likely 16-seat swing overall from 2013 to 2017.

It is important to note that the analysis I just performed didn’t take into account uncontested seats in 2013.  In that year, 33 Republicans won without facing Democratic opposition.  This year, 27 of those districts had Democratic competition.  Democrats won three of those districts.

In contrast, 24 Democrats ran unopposed in 2013.  Only 3 of these districts had a Republican candidate in 2017, one of whom won.

Thus, on net, the conversion of previously uncontested seats into contested ones added a couple of seats to the Democratic wave in 2017.

The increase in Democratic votes was targeted in purple HOD districts

In noting that Democrats enjoyed a 3.4 point two-party swing from 2013 to 2017, it is tempting to suppose that these 3.4 points were distributed uniformly throughout the state.  However, the swing was anything but uniform.

Looking again at the gubernatorial votes allocated to HOD districts, the swing ranged from a gain of 10.3 percentage points in the 40th district (Northern Virginia) to a loss of 7.1 percentage points in the 3rd (southwest Virginia).  The accompanying figure shows the entire distribution. (Click on the graph to enlarge it.)

As the identification of the two outliers in the previous paragraph suggests, districts experiencing the most extreme swings from 2013 to 2017 were not randomly distributed throughout the state.  This is evident in the following plot which shows the 2013–2017 swing graphed against the two-party balance in the 2013 election.  There’s a nice curvilinear relationship between the degree of pro-Democratic swing and McAuliffe’s electoral strength in 2013.

True, there are some outliers, such as in the 75th district, where support for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate fell from 61.4% in 2013 to 55.9% in 2017.  And, it does appear that the swing was asymmetrical, to the degree that the purple districts on the Democratic side of the ledger saw a greater pro-Democratic swing than the purple districts that leaned red.

Still, on the whole, the pro-Democratic swing also tended to occur in the districts where it helped Democratic HOD candidates the most.

To help quantify the significance of this observation, let’s compare purple districts with the rest of the state.  I will define a purple district as one that gave McAuliffe a vote share in the 40%–60% range in 2013.

All told, 22 districts fell in this competitive range, only 3 of which elected a Democrat in 2013, 17 of which elected a Democrat in 2017.

Of the remaining 78 districts in either deep Blue or Red Virginia, 30 elected a Democrat in 2013, 32 in 2017.

Thus, what really mattered was not so much the overall shift in Democratic fortunes in 2013, but where that shift occurred.

One remaining detail

There’s one final detail about this improvement in Democrats’ fortunes in purple districts that bears mentioning.  Not only did the Democratic percentage of the vote increase the most in purple districts, overall turnout did, as well.  In the purple districts just discussed, turnout increased by 29.4% in 2013 compared to 2017.  In the rest of the state, turnout increased by 21.3%.

There are two possible explanations for this differential in turnout increase — which, to remind us, is measured using the number of votes for governor, not HOD candidates.  The first is that areas that saw the biggest surge for Democrats are the fastest-growing areas of the state.  The second is that there was greater mobilization among Democrats in districts that had a chance to contribute to a flipping of the House of Delegates.  It’s likely a combination of both factors.

Adjudicating between the two sources of this differential turnout increase must await population data that won’t be available for several years.  Either explanation is consistent with what many people know, which is that Virginia’s politics continue to be pulled in a new direction.

Some Observations on Virginia’s Absentee Votes

To continue on this past week’s “all things Virginia” theme in election geekery, let’s take a look at absentee voting in the Old Dominion in last Tuesday’s election.

Two things make absentee voting in Virginia interesting, at least to me.  The first is administrative — where were absentee votes cast?  The second is political — did they skew Democratic or Republican?

The administrative take

Like most of the eastern U.S., Virginia continues to require an excuse to cast an absentee ballot.  Virginia’s list of excuses is pretty long — the absentee ballot application form lists 20 different excuses.  Still, the vast majority of Virginia’s voters cast ballots on Election Day — 6% in 2016, compared to the nationwide rate of 21%.

Despite its relatively traditional absentee ballot law, many of Virginia’s registrars have been trying to increase the amount of absentee voting, both to give their voters more options, and to relieve pressures on the traditional polling places.  (There is good reason for this latter goal, since Virginia had among the longest Election-Day wait times in 2012.)  In some counties, satellite locations have been established to receive absentee ballots, which means that there is little difference in practice between early voting and absentee voting in some places.

The registrars’ efforts are helped by the fact that one of the reasons that an absentee ballot can be cast is if the voter has “business outside the county/city of residence on Election Day.”  Considering that the Census Bureau reports that 52% of Virginians work in another county than where they live, the possibilities would seem to be substantial.

Despite the possibilities, the fraction of Virginia voters choosing the absentee route was relatively low in 2017 — only 7.1%, up from 5.4% in the last gubernatorial race, to be sure, but still low compared to states with no-excuse absentee voting.

The rate of absentee ballot usage wasn’t uniformly low this year, however.  Nearly 21% of Falls Church’s voters, for instance, cast an absentee ballot, as did 14% of Arlington’s.

The following map shows the rate of absentee ballot usage across the state.  (Click on the map to see a larger version.) On the whole, more absentee ballots were cast in Northern Virginia than in the rest of the state — with a few other hot spots here and there.

With Virginia’s absentee law favoring voters working out-of-county, and so many Northern Virginia voters working in the District of Columbia, one might predict that absentee ballots were more likely to be used where there were a lot of cross-county commuters.

But, this prediction turns out to be incorrect, as is illustrated in the accompanying scatterplot, which shows the relationship between the percentage of ballots cast absentee (y-axis) and the percentage of workers commuting out of the county.  Whatever weak relationship does exist is due entirely to two small independent cities in Northern Virginia, Falls Church and Manassas Park, nearly all of whose residents work outside their home city.

In fact, the strongest factor predicting the rate of absentee ballot usage appears to be living in northern Virginia, where the absentee usage rate was twice that of the rest of the state — even when controlling for commuting patterns.


The political take

The second take on absentee voting in Virginia is political.  Since at least the 2008 presidential election, turning out one’s most ardent supporters early in the process has been a standard tactic of most well-funded campaigns.  There is also a bit of folk wisdom that says that the side with the most riled-up base will have an advantage in the early voting (or absentee) phase.

Democrats did win the absentee vote in Virginia, and by a comfortable margin — Ralph Northam won 59% of the absentee votes cast, compared to 53% of on Election Day.  That would suggest that absentee voting in Virginia was a predominantly Democratic tool in 2017.

The problem with this suggestion, however, is that the rate of absentee ballot usage was greatest in Northern Virginia, which was also the most pro-Democratic part of the state.  Thus, the higher percentage of votes cast for Northam among absentee voters could just be another way of saying that Northam received more votes in Northern Virginia.

The actual partisan pattern of absentee voting becomes interesting when we ask where Democrats did better (or worse) on a more local level.  We can do this first by plotting the percentage of absentee votes that were cast for Northam against the percentage of Election-Day votes he received in each county.  That is the accompanying scatterplot.  Note that Northam’s absentee vote out-performed his Election Day vote in most counties, but particularly in the smaller counties of the state where the Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, did best on Election Day.

The second way to do this is by mapping the difference in Northam’s percentage of the vote, comparing absentee ballots with Election Day ballots.  This is done in the following map.  (Blue jurisdictions gave Northam a bigger percentage in the absentee vote, while red jurisdictions gave Gillespie a bigger absentee vote percentage.)

Thus, while Northam did win the absentee vote to a greater degree than he won the Election Day vote, this appears to be primarily an artifact of his strength in northern Virginia, which was both heavily Democratic and voted absentee more so than the rest of the state.  From the perspective of individual Democrats, the absentee route was more likely to be chosen by those in the more conservative parts of the state than in the D.C. surburbs.