Reporting Results from the 2018 DF/RC LEO Survey: The “Bin” Question

We are nearing a final release of the 2018 Democracy Fund / Reed College Local Election Official survey. Our current discussion is all about the “bins”. In other words, what is the best way to categorize local election officials, and by implication local election jurisdictions, so as to provide some meaningful categories for comparison but not lump together very disparate locations.

There’s no magic formula for making this choice, as David Kimball and Brady Baybeck showed so effectively in the 2013 Election Law Journal article,”Are All Jurisdictions Equal? Size Disparity in Election Administration.” As of 2008, Kimball and Baybeck showed how the population of local election officials is dominated by small jurisdictions, yet the majority of registered voters live in larger jurisdictions (see Figures 1 and 2, reproduced from their article).

Kimball and Baybeck chose to report their results by “small”, “medium”, and “large” as shown in the figures, because they argued these categories reflected fundamental distinctions in the nature of election administration:

To simplify some of the analyses that follow, we divide the universe of local jurisdictions into three size categories: small (serving less than 1,000 voters), medium (serving between 1,000 and 50,000 voters), and large jurisdictions (serving more than 50,000 voters). We chose 1,000 voters as one divid- ing line because jurisdictions with fewer than 1,000 voters are generally small towns that have no more than a couple of polling places and a handful of poll workers. We expect these jurisdictions to have a different election administration experience than larger jurisdictions. In addition, roughly one-third of the jurisdictions served less than 1,000 voters in recent presidential elections, so this serves as a natural break in the data.

We chose 50,000 voters as the other dividing line because jurisdictions serving more than 50,000 vot- ers tend to be in densely populated metropolitan areas with a large central city. Thus, the largest jurisdictions have different infrastructure and transportation networks than the medium-sized jurisdictions, which are mostly rural and exurban counties. Together, these dimensions characterize what we define as small, medium, and large jurisdictions in a variety of analyses below. The smallest jurisdictions are primarily in the upper Midwest and New England, with a smaller number in the Plains. Large jurisdictions are concentrated in the major metropolitan centers of the United States.

Our 2018 distributions look quite similar to what David and Brady found. Below, we’ve reproduced histograms displays of jurisdictions, first counties and then townships, by populations of registered voters. Most notable is how very many local election officials serve in townships in the United States (predominantly in Michigan, Wisconsin, and in New England) yet how very few (comparatively) voters there are in those jurisdictions (note that we have excluded jurisdictions that serve 100,000 or more registered voters, for the purposes of making the display readable–those jurisdictions administer elections for 35% of all registered voters).

 

While the final report is not yet complete (coming attractions!), we have tentatively decided to split the difference, in hopefully what is an instructive and not Solomonic division.

We will report our results in these bins:

  1. 0-5,000 registered voters. These jurisdictions comprise 25% of our LEO respondents and 2.9% of registered voters
  2. 5,001 – 25,000 registered voters. These jurisdictions comprise 30%of our respondents and serve 12.7% of registered voters.
  3. 25,001 – 100,000 registered voters. 30% of respondents and 18.5% of voters
  4. 100,001 – largest. 15% of responses and 66.9% of voters.

The discerning reader will notice that the last category covers a lot of voters. This is unavoidable, because this category includes not very many LEOs, relatively speaking, and our survey guarantees confidentiality to our respondents. We can report some results with the final bin broken into two smaller bins, but we must honor the commitment we made to our respondents.

This is the reality of American election administration. It’s a classic case where diversity and decentralization are both a source of strength but also can create inequities in funding and voter access.