The Early Voting Transformation The Early Voting Transformation

A number of reporters have asked me how early voting may have changed campaigns.  I describe a longer period of voter mobilization.  I describe  get out the early vote rallies, such as Obama is holding in Illinois this week.  And I talk about how Election Day has been changed from a day where half or more of the citizenry go to a local school, community building, or government office to cast a ballot to the end of a two or three week period of balloting.

But sometimes a picture tells a thousand words, and I think the graphic below, comparing early voting rates in North Carolina in 2004, 2008, and for the first five of early voting in 2012, says it all.

If you were campaigning in the Tarheel State in 2004, elections were all about the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  A few days before the 2004 election, about 15% of Democrats and Republicans had voted early.  A week out, less than 10% of ballots were cast.  These voters mattered, of course, especially in a close contest, but campaigns kept their resources in check to focus on the 85% of partisans who cast an Election Day ballot.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s candidacy was the trumpet of Joshua that felled the Election Day wall.  Anyone familiar with the 2008 race cannot forget the long lines of Black voters waiting in the Fall heat to cast a historic vote for the candidate who would eventually be elected as our first African American president.

But it wasn’t just Obama.  Usage among Republican and Unaffiliated voters also leapt in response to the key legislative change: making absentee voting a “one-stop” process, essentially converting it into early in-person voting.  The result was that 2.6 million out of 4.4 million ballots were cast early and, at least for Democrats, half of those came in 7 or more days before Election Day.

Fast forward to 2012.  Once again, voters are enduring long early voting lines.  Democratic rates in particular are exceeding 2008 rates.  Republicans are lagging, but still are turning out earlier than in 2008.  And any candidate who wants to win the state has to be already on the ground, because if they aren’t, their opponent could be 30-40% ahead by election day.

Image courtesy of the Winston Salem Journal


Reporters FAQ 2: How Absentee Ballots are Processed, Scanned, and Tabulated Reporters FAQ 2: How Absentee Ballots are Processed, Scanned, and Tabulated

Image from

I just got off of a series of phone calls with reporters who are asking about absentee ballots and how they are treated by elections officials.

While the administrative rules and procedures vary by state (as with almost everything in American elections), there are some consistent patterns that reporters need to understand.

  1. Processing:
    Absentee ballots go through a number of steps before they are fed into a counting machine.  The signature on the external envelope needs to be verified.  This is done either with a computer or with a human, and there are always backups when signatures are deemed questionable.  The ballot is then separated from the external envelope–this is done to maintain the secrecy of the ballot (except in North Carolina where, at least in the past, it was possible to relink the two via a security code).A few states are “voter intent” states (California, Oregon, Washington, perhaps others), and in these states, the ballots are then examined and “remade” by ballot review boards.   In other states (e.g. Arkansas) this process does not take place unless an absentee ballot is rejected by the ballot counting machine.
  2. Scanning:
    Ballots are then typically scanned using an optical character recognition machine.  This information is stored on a memory card.
  3. Tabulating:
    Finally, at some point, an elections official hits the “tabulate” button that provides the candidate totals for the absentee ballots which have been scanned into the machine.  There is not, of course, a big Staples type “total” button–what this practically means is that the machine creates a report that contains a number of pieces of information, such as total ballots counted, total ballots accepted, total votes for each candidate in each race, and, depending on the report, candidate totals by precinct.
    (Here is an example of one such report from Bay County, FL from the November 2011 election.)

It’s important to understand these distinctions, because many journalists don’t realize that “scanning” is not the same as “tabulating.”   Continue reading

Reuters/Ipsos American Mosaic and the Early Vote Reuters/Ipsos American Mosaic and the Early Vote

I came across “The American Mosaic” data exploration tool that draws on tracking poll data from Reuters/IPSOS.

This is a really well-implemented tool, and I encourage everyone to look at it.

I’m not quite sure what to conclude from the early voting numbers, plotted here and available by clicking this link (bloggers who want to grab a permalink from this site–click on the “share” button and you can grab the URL).

On the one hand, they show a pretty consistent 15 point advantage in the Obama vote among those respondents who say they have cast an early vote.

I looked more closely at the data, and they show 36.9% of the respondent pool thus far say they are Democrats versus 31.7% Republican.  That is 3% above (Dem) / below (GOP) Gallup’s current estimate of party affiliation among likely voters.  

What makes this hard to evaluate is that the states which currently have sent out absentee ballots are not a random subset of the nation as a whole.  Nonetheless, in another week or so, these figures might start to give us a real sense of how the early vote is shaping up.

Early voting is a moving target. Watch where you shoot.

A standard line in my opening lecture to new students of political science is some variant of this:

Studying politics can be exciting and can be frustrating because political actors are also strategic actors.  They make the rules, the break the rules, and then they rewrite the rules.  While you may be able to generalize about political actors, it’s very hard to generalize about political outcomes.

This lesson applies to this year’s coverage of early voting.  Both campaigns have learned lessons from past elections.  Both campaigns have been monitoring legal changes in the states.  And both campaigns are spending millions of dollars trying to mobilize the early vote by whatever means necessary.

Image courtesy of

Early voting is a moving target, and shooting at the bullseye in 2008 is almost surely going to miss the target in 2012.

Coverage a week ago was trumpeting a Democratic absentee advantage in Iowa. Today’s story in Politico?  “GOP Gains Ground in Iowa Early Voting.”

If you line these and other stories up, it’s clear that the Obama campaign focused a lot of effort on recruiting more Democrats to apply for and cast absentee ballots in Iowa.  Result: an early Democratic surge in absentee votes.  Reaction: Romney campaign has redoubled their mobilization efforts in response.

As I posted a few days ago, the same thing appears to be happening in Florida.  Given the uncertainty over the early in-person voting period, the Obama campaign redirected resources to encourage Democratic-leaning voters to request and cast absentee ballots.  Result?  An “advantage” for the Democrats in absentee ballots!

This is why I’ve been resisting making broad conclusions about what these early early voting numbers mean.  Not every commentator has been so circumspect.  This might make for a nice story that will be forgotten a week later (see: Iowa) but it doesn’t make for informed political commentary.

Swing States or Swing Nation? Swing States or Swing Nation?

Image courtesy of the NY Times

There is a really cool graphic in today’s 538 blog at the NY TImes that is making its way around the internet.  The graphic is creative and awfully pretty, but the focus on individual states as independent entities, “swinging” in response to individual presidential candidacies, is almost certainly wrong.

As Jim Stimson showed a decade ago in Tides of Consent, and Ben Page and Bob Shapiro (find me in the acknowledgements!) showed two decades ago in The Rational Public, the nation as a whole has swung in fairly consistent patterns between liberal and conservative policy positions.

Image courtesy of the Policy Mood project at UNC

What’s revealing to me in the Times figure is which states maintain a position consistently in the middle of the distribution, the consistent swing states, but also those states that move most in response to individual candidacies.

The ability to mouse over and view a state’s trajectory is very instructive.  I can imagine every state politics instructor today is showing this to his students.

But let’s not overstate the independent movement of individual states, as the authors do at the start:

The latest FiveThirtyEight forecast shows many states shifting to the right. Florida, North Carolina and Indiana are more likely than not to shift back to Republicans.

The nation as a whole is shifting slightly back to Romney.  We only pay attention to Florida, North Carolina, and Indiana because they are on the cusp.

I don’t want to suggest that there are not unique, idiosyncratic policy issues and ideological responses tied to a states history or political culture, but what I see primarily in the graphic is a reflection of policy mood, not states swinging back and forth on individual trajectories.