State of Florida legislature: free the absentee ballot reports!

As the campaign turns to Florida, absentee and early in person voting will be the lede for the next few days.

As those of you who follow this area know, tracking early ballots in Florida is a frustrating exercise (both Michael McDonald and I have written about this in the past).

The state makes freely available at the state website detailed early in person returns including individual vote reports. This is what allowed us to post turnout rates by race, age, etc in previous elections.

No-excuse returns, however, remain restricted to campaigns and candidates, and there is no good reason why. In the past, I’ve been told that this is because of concerns over election day crime – after all, if you knew the address of someone who’d voted absentee, you could rob them on election day. Wait, I respond, you now have no-excuse absentee voting…

All my posts recently about no-excuse absentee ballots in Florida have relied in news reports and analysis of the Miami-Dade returns. Miami-Dade, Orange, and Pinellas all make their data easily accessible. Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, and Duval lag behind.

Early in-person File Location Current turnout
Statewide Florida DoE 36,912
Statewide Not available
Miami-Dade Miami Dade Elections Main Page 47,108
Broward Can’t find it
Palm Beach Can’t find it
Hillsborough Can’t find it
Orange Orange County elections 9,251
Pinellas Current elections page 41,230
Duval Can’t find it

I recognize the time pressures operating on local elections officials and I’m not trying to make more work for them. The frustrating thing is that the data are readily accessible at the state elections website, you just can’t get in to see them. And the local counties generate daily reports, some simply don’t post them.

Why does this matter? It matters to anyone who is trying to follow the election, report on the election, and mobilize citizens to participate in the election. For example, what does it mean when 41,230 absentee ballots have been returned in Pinellas and 47,108 in Miami-Dade, which is 2.5 times larger? (By the way, there are 220,024 registered Republicans in Pinellas and 367,298 in Miami-Dade, so it’s not all a difference of partisanship.)

Keeping this gate closed only benefits well-funded parties and candidates, and there isn’t any clear legal justification for embargoing the the information.

On the positive side, the names of the files follow regular patterns, so someone with more staff and programming skills than me could unpack these files (mainly PDFs) on a daily basis and track the returns.

Expanding early voting infrastructure in Jackson County, MO

I’ve blogged a few times about the unanticipated infrastructure demands created by early voting. Most elections offices are designed to handle a few hundred citizens with questions about registration or disabled citizens needing use special access machines, not thousands or tens of thousands of voters showing up to cast a ballot.

This story from Jackson County, MO, just outside of Kansas City, illustrates the problem.

Five election dates, new legislative districts thanks to the 2010 census and even seemingly simple things like generating new notification cards for every registered voter. And the November ballot – with a presidential race, several statewide races and initiatives, state legislative contests and possibly local ballot issues – is expected to be long.

The Democratic director of the board, Bob Nichols, noted “We had people lined up outside and in our office.” Tammy Brown, Nichols’s Republican counterpart, added “It is a crazy year.”

Adapt or die, as my colleague Doug Chapin often notes, and in this case, adaptation was easy. The story doesn’t note who saw the empty storefront across the street, but the Board has rented it, and just like that, more space for voting, shorter lines, and less stress on the elections staff.

How many of the votes have already been cast in Florida?

A little mathematics and some web browsing skills, and it looks like somewhere between 8% and 17% of the ballots in Florida have already been cast.

Keep in mind that, as of today, four candidates (Bachmann, Cain, Huntsman, and Perry) were on these ballots, and three (Bachmann, Huntsman, and Perry) were still actively competing well into the absentee balloting period.

We’ll use Miami Dade County to make our calculations, but this same exercise can be done throughout Florida (and you can bet the Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum forces are making these calculations daily).

Miami Dade County, reports 42,149 absentee ballots returned as of close of business yesterday, totaling 32% of the 130,491 ballots mailed out. The Miami Herald reports 143,000 ballots voted statewide, just over 30% of absentee ballot requests.

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Early voting in upcoming primary states

Upcoming primaries, and the percentage of votes cast early in 2008:

State Primary Date Early Voting Rate in 2008
Florida 1/31/2012 54%
Arizona 2/28/2012 53%
Michigan 2/28/2012 25%
Georgia 3/6/2012 53%
Ohio 3/6/2012 30%
Tennessee 3/6/2012 60%
Vermont 3/6/2012 29%
Illinois 3/20/2012 22%
Wisconsin 4/3/2012 21%
Texas 4/3/2012 66%

It is surprisingly difficult to predict the percentage of ballots that will come in early, via in-person voting or no-excuse absentee ballots, in the upcoming primaries.  Many states have only recently begun to report individual voting histories that include the mode of ballot return, and even if they do have that information, even fewer provide the date.

At least one well-known data aggregator – Catalist – doesn’t capture the date of the ballot return on its permanent database, although that information is collected in real-time during election season.

Florida is a nice example: it does a wonderful job reporting early voting data, including the exact date that the ballot was cast. Individual no-excusse absentee records, however, are only available to registered party committees and candidate organizations.

To make things even more complicated, we know that Republican voters have historically tended to use no-excuse absentee ballots at a much higher rate than Democratic voters.

With all these caveats, the table reports the percentage of ballots that were cast prior to election day in the 2008 general election for selected upcoming states. Any state reporting less than 20% advance voting has been excluded. If you are trying to project backwards, most states now mail their domestic no-excuse ballots 45 days before the date of the election, the same time they are required to mail UOCAVA ballots.

2010 EAC Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) Released

The 2010 Report and datasets have been released by the EAC.

Regardless of what happens to the Election Assistance Commission, I hope Congress continues to require and fund the Election Administration and Voting Survey (as well as the NVRA and UOCAVA surveys.

All three provide invaluable insights into the conduct of American elections voting, the most fundamental act of democracy and citizenship. Without the national perspective provided by these three data reporting instruments, it becomes much more difficult to impossible to monitor, evaluate, and improve the democratic process, whether it be making sure everyone who is eligible has a chance to register; that uniformed personnel and overseas citizens have sufficient time to vote; or that each American citizen, regardless of state, county, or township, has a full and equal right to vote.

Allegations of absentee “voter fraud” in Indiana don’t add up

We need to invent a catchy phrase in the elections community to describe overblown allegations of voter fraud. As Lorraine Minnite has documented, most charges of fraud don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s important that Americans have faith in the security and integrity of the ballot, but it’s just as important that overblown charges of “fraud” be challenged.

Take the latest series of charges and counter charges regarding voting irregularities in Indiana. Rick Hasen noted the “latest salvo” from the state GOP chair.

I am careful to use the word “irregularities” and not “election fraud” because, regardless of the rhetoric, even a cursory examination of the list of charges only reveals one case that rises to any level of concern: allegations regarding absentee ballot fraud for a single UOCAVA ballot. (I’ve been searching fruitlessly for the reasons why there are 65 counts in the indictment; some stories refer to absentee ballot “applications” while other stories note a single ballot in question.)

Let’s review the other cases of the “culture of corruption.” The one getting the most press is “hundreds of signatures to get Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the primary ballot in 2008.” Let’s be clear what is being claimed–that without these signatures, Obama and Clinton, two of the main contenders for the presidency, would not have been on the ballot. I am not going to excuse illegal signature gathering (in my state of Oregon, we eliminated most of this by banning payment by the signature), but what kind of state runs what kind of party primary which would exclude Obama and Clinton from the ballot?

But voter fraud? No. No one falsified a ballot, changed a vote, hacked a machine, etc.

The third and fourth charges both refer to illegal transportation of ballots – political candidates or campaign staff delivering absentee ballots from citizens to a county office. Again, if illegal, it obviously should be stopped, but once again, “mishandling ballots” is not vote fraud.

Case number 5? A single woman in South Bend said an unknown person called her and tried to tell her she could now vote by phone and didn’t need to vote on election day. The woman wisely ignored the caller and …. voted on election day.

The local television station titled the story “Possible voter fraud in South Bend”. The state GOP says “calls were made” even though only a single allegation surfaced. Yet there was no voter fraud and no one’s right to vote was denied. For all we know, the call emanated from Crank Yankers!

The final charge concerns a voter registration drive conducted by ACORN. In order to meet quotas and to get paid, canvassers falsified names and signatures. Illegal: yes. Voter fraud: no.

Some common themes emerge in the Indiana stories. First, except for the first case, where the facts are still emerging, there is not a single case of actual voting fraud. Second, registration and ballot handling errors are all lumped under the tendentious label “vote fraud.” Third, reporters can sometimes be awfully lazy! And fourth, most of what was alleged in Indiana can be eliminated by banning payment by the signature or by the registration card–something we banned in Oregon a number of years ago.

2010 FVAP survey report and data release

I can’t add much to this excellent report by Doug Chapin at the Program for Excellence in Election Administration.

I will out myself as Geek #1, but I suspect my friends in the community know this already. The demographics on the military were as of 2008, and were obtained from a slide presentation from the Defense Manpower Data Center.

The comments about income and region were drawn from a project I worked on with the Triangle Institute for Security Studies that compared demographic and attitudinal profiles of the rank and file, officers, and civilians, the results of which appeared in a number of publications including Soldiers and Civilians: The Civil-Military Gap and American National Security. The surveys were administered from 1998-9, but I have not heard anything to indicate that the recruitment and volunteer patterns have changed substantially since.

Finally, the comment about the relationship between serving in a hierarchical organization which stresses the importance of voting (as well as providing voting assistance officers) and the possibility that members of the military might participate at higher rates than their demographic and income profiles would predict is admittedly speculative. I based my comments on extensive research on military sociologists, such as the late Charles Moskos, as well as a preliminary but intriguing pattern I found in vote validation studies conducted by the National Election Studies. While the total number of military respondents in the survey is small, there is a statistically significantly greater propensity to over report being registered (10% difference) and to over report turnout (17% difference).

What this means is, to take one example, in the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 89% of the general public who said they voted were validated as having voted, compared to 73% of the military. These findings are preliminary because there were only 51 military respondents in the CCES, and I suspect (but do not know) that all were stationed in the US. (The CCES survey is publicly available here.)

One faculty member’s idiosyncratic guide to teaching election law to undergrads

I had a lot of help from Rick Hasen and Dan Lowenstein, who saved me from some real howlers in an earlier version.  And I’m a lot nicer to the founding fathers, as well.

Forthcoming sometime next year:  “When and How to Teach Election Law in the Undergraduate Classroom,” attached to this posting.

Colorado’s Absentee Ballot Fight: Data Can Help This!

In the ongoing battle over absentee ballots in Colorado, we’ve heard the claims about disenfranchised military voters and we’ve heard the charges about partisanship.

Unfortunately, what we haven’t heard is some hard factual information that compares ballot return rates among active and inactive voters. Andrew Cole, spokesperson for Secretary of State Scott Gessler is quoted as saying “there were thousands of ballots mailed out to inactive voters in 2010 that were unaccounted for.”

I’ve tried to answer this question at the Denver County elections office. Total registration, active and inactive, was 297,558 according to the spreadsheet available here:

Of that total, 22,696 are “Inactive – Fail to vote”, or 7.63% of the total.

The number of mail ballots issued was 160,363, of which 121, 538 were returned and verified. 128,997 mail ballots were returned in total, leaving 31,366 total outstanding unreturned mail ballots, or 19.55% of the total.

What is unknown is whether this number is high or low, and whether the proportion is higher or lower among active vs. inactive voters. If we assume the proportions apply across the groups, then there would have been approximately 2400 mail ballots “unaccounted for” that were sent to inactive voters, with the remainder (nearly 29,000) sent to active voters.

While speculative—it is likely that the proportion of unreturned ballots is higher among inactive voters—these figures speak directly to the claim being made by Andrew Cole. And the problem of unaccounted for ballots, if viewed this way, is obviously much greater among active voters

Chapin’s new blog asks: When is Election Day, really?

Doug Chapin has a blog as part of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration. Given Doug’s knowledge of the field, I think this has to be an addition to the daily RSS feed.

In a recent posting, Chapin blogged about the challenging 2012 presidential primary calendar, and how constant shifting deadlines (and rosters of candidates) create administrative and budgetary challenges for administrators.

I’ll add a little spice to the mix: early voting makes the question of “when exactly is election day again” even more complicated. With the Federal Voting Assistance Program taking a muscular role in making sure that the MOVE Actis being fully implemented, Bob Carey is sure to pay close attention to presidential primary ballots.

“Election Day” starts 45 days before the first announced primary. If, as is being proposed, Florida moves its primary to January 31st, then the first presidential primary ballots will be mailed out on December 17th, and obviously prepared earlier than that.

The number of UOCAVA voters in NH is tiny – 4221 in the 2008 EAVS. But Florida reported 121,395 UOCAVA ballots transmitted in 2008 (largest in the nation). When *exactly* is Election Day, again, Doug asks? I have an answer: right around January 1st, 2012, when the first UOCAVA ballots are likely to start to arrive.

Crossposted to Election Updates