My Voter File Moment at Vanderbilt

My day in Nashville has been wonderful–thanks again to John Geer and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions for hosting me.

My lecture had one lowlight and one highlight.  I wonder if the highlight is shared by my good friends in the elections community such as Doug Chapin, Charles Stewart, Dan Smith, and others.

The lowlight is easy: I never realized that this was a course on elections, not introductory American politics!  When I answered in response to a question that the demographic profile of the early voter mirrored many of the biases in American politics that they have “read about in the interest groups chapter”–even using the  “what accent the heavenly chorus” quote from Schattschneider–I wonder if the students knew what class they were in.

To Geer’s credit, he told me afterward that the students will probably be panicked, and maybe that’s a good thing! Continue reading

Ballot Tracking in NC

I am heading off to Vanderbilt University tomorrow to lecture to John Geer‘s introductory American politics class, and I am pretty sure there will be a relative in the audience!

I have been slashing away at the North Carolina absentee ballot file tonight, just to show the students what kind of ballot tracking goes in under the early voting regime.

One thing I stress at this point: there is not a lot to be learned.  I know reporters love to see these early numbers as indicators of something about the campaign, but we are talking about only 134,00o total ballot requests, and as you can see by the figure, only about a quarter have been returned.

The total expected turnout in North Carolina is well over four million.

In short, this ain’t a lot of ballots.  The pictures are pretty, but there is not a lot you can conclude.

P.S. To my Political Science 311 students: you’ll be generating these graphs after break!

I did some interviews in 2008… a LOT of interviews.  We lost track eventually, but the contacts were well past 500 and total appearances past 1000.  I’ve been doing a lot fewer this year, in part because I don’t have two assistants working for me–Eva is working in San Francisco for the World Affairs Council and James is at Boalt Law School.

A second reason, though, is that I’m fielding the same questions as I did four years ago.  We used to have an Early Voting FAQ that seems to have gotten lost in our website redesign.

In that spirit, the most common questions I get: Continue reading

A front-page piece in the NY Times by Adam Liptak focuses on one of the more serious consequences of the rise in absentee voting.

First, absentee votes are more likely to fall prey to innocuous mistakes that lead to rejections. The article notes that “election officials reject almost 2 percent of ballots cast by mail, double the rate for in-person voting”.

Second, fraud is both theoretically easier to commit through absentee voting, and there have been more documented instances of absentee voting fraud in the last several years than in person voting fraud. Several of the most notable instances of absentee voting fraud are included in the article.

The article does not withhold the irony that those who focus on making voting more efficient and fraud less likely for in person voting may be missing the point.  The reality on the ground is that absentee voting is a growing phenomenon and is much more fertile ground for potential fraud and ballot mistakes

The article is a fine read. It touches for a moment upon the essential tension between the “elemental promises of democracy” that are questioned when voting can no longer be trusted, and the democratizing effects of a balloting system that makes voting available to so many more people. Since absentee voting appears to be a permanent fixture in US elections for the time being, this is a tension we need to continue dealing with

Image courtesy of

abomination [əˌbɒmɪˈneɪʃən]


1. a person or thing that is disgusting
2. an action that is vicious, vile, etc.
3. intense loathing
Francis Wilkinson doesn’t like early voting.  Clearly.  But an “abomination”?  That brings to mind a genetically mutated Godzilla monster destroying our democratic system.
Is that really what early voting does? Continue reading

Got to give NPR props on this Early Voting Calendar.  It’s not as neat and precise as ours, but it looks really good.

Image courtey of

There have been some breathless stories over the last few days that vastly overstate the number of Americans who are likely to cast an early ballot, in person or no-excuse absentee, in the next few weeks.

Kyle Inskeep of NBC News titled his Sept 21st story:  “Early Voting: Half of US Begins Voting Tomorrow.”

Michelle Franzen of MSNBC repeats the statement: “Early Voting Begins in Many States.”  The title on the video says “Early Voting Expands” except that early voting has not expanded substantially since 2008 and in at least three states (GA, FL, OH) has been somewhat restricted.  Details, details.

What’s the problem?  Inskeep is strictly accurate if, when you hear “half the nation” you think “25 of 50 states, not counting DC.”  But I think most of us think “half the nation” means half of the voting population. Just like the U.S. Senate, Inskeep counts Wyoming as “1” and California as “1” even though Wyoming’s population is only 1.5% of California’s.

44.8% lived in states that have started early and absentee voting as of September 22nd.  It’s a less sexy number than “half” but it’s the right one. Continue reading

I appreciate being the go-to person for early voting statistics and information, and I try to help reporters as best I can.  It can be hard, however, when a reporter challenges a piece of information that you gave them, which was drawn from official sources, with a number taken from a campaign.  I have no idea where campaigns get their figures.

The most recent set of inquiries come from Ohio. Someone in the Obama campaign believes that 28% of Ohioans voted in-person early or absentee.

The campaign may believe that, but the best information I have at my fingertips come from the Ohio Secretary of State’s website, the AP Elections Unit, and the EAC’s EAVS survey.  I show below why I discount the EAC information, so my best information is that approximately 30% of Ohioans cast an early ballot. Continue reading