Nate Silver has a post over at 538 about Washington state, and the difficulties with forecasting election results there. I don’t know how pollsters adjust their likely voter models in states with significant early voting (though this seems like an increasingly important question), but I do want to note his comments about the impact of vote-by-mail. Silver contends:

Also — probably because of mail balloting — turnout in Washington and Oregon has generally been very high, so targets that might work well in other states could fail there.

This seems wrongheaded on two fronts. First, as we’ve shown several times, vote-by-mail has caused a very small turnout increase in Oregon and Washington – on the order of a few percent in federal elections. (Although admittedly, we do see a more substantial effect in lower-tier races.) In fact, political participation is part of the culture in these two states, and they have long had high rates of voter turnout.

Second, as turnout increases in a state, the impact of likely voter models presumably becomes less important. Washington and Oregon have levels of turnout way above the national average, most other states, and the pollsters’ baselines for likely voter models.

Update: Gronke posted this reply on the Time blog:

I have to chime in here. Oren is correct about Washington. The big push for vote by mail in Washington State occurred after the Rossi/Gregoire contest (2004). Fewer than 10 counties were using VBM in 2004, so any “house effects” prior to 2006 cannot be attributed to VBM.

Second, many scholars have studied the turnout effects of VBM in federal contests, and the impact is minimal, between 2-4%. Put simply, Oregon (and Washington) were high turnout states prior to the adoption of VBM and continue to be high turnout states. I’m disappointed to see Nate propagate the myth that VBM is a magic bullet for turnout. It’s a common misconception, but one that most election officials now realize is not true.

Finally, while I understand how high turnout and VBM can make the likely voter filter problematic, I don’t understand how it would be predicted to create highly variable results. A just doesn’t link to B in this blog post.

If turnout were high, then isn’t the likely voter filter irrelevant? And if high turnout plus heavy use of non precinct place voting leads to variable polling results, then Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado should also be displaying these patterns.

I’ve been chiding my good friend Michael McDonald for promoting early voting returns on the Election Law listserv. In one posting, he refers to “tantalizing” early returns from North Carolina.

Michael does a great service to all of us by posting these data, and by providing the best turnout and voter registration data available. However, my concern with these early results is that reporters won’t realize–as I’m sure Michael does–that these early votes constitute a tiny part of the overall returns, and even of the early votes.

In North Carolina, for example, only .3% of ballots have been cast (using 2006 as our baseline). In Maine, 2.3% of ballots have been cast.

Our analysis of many states in 2006 and 2008 shows that typically less than half of the early votes (not total votes–early votes) are cast more than seven days prior to the election.

Given that we already know that Republicans tend to use no-excuse absentee voting at a much higher rate anyway, it’s dangerous to conclude anything from these very early figures.  I’d wait at least until Monday the 18th or better, Monday the 25th, before writing the inevitable early vote story.

A losing candidate in Everett, MA raised “the specter of voting irregularities” due to an abnormally high number of absentee ballots in the primary for State Senate.  

Interestingly, the candidate, Tim Flaherty, wants the clerk to examine whether all absentee voters proved that their excuses were valid. 


Ned Foley of the Moritz School of Law at the Ohio State University weighs in on our recent discussions about Alaska.  For those who don’t know, Ned is one of a few experts on the legal and political wrangling in Coleman vs. Franken, and I appreciate his willingness to muse on this issue. Crossposted at

I haven’t looked into the details of the Alaska law on this–at least not yet–and let’s hope no situation arises where the outcome matters on how a dispute over write-in ballots is resolved.  But what worries me most in what I have seen as a result of the previous Election Update posts is that apparent discrepancy between the text of the statute and the view of Alaska’s Elections Director, as reported by Slate and the Anchorage Daily News.

The statute says that, to be conducted, a write-in ballot must meet this requirement regarding the write-in candidate’s name: “the name, as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy, of the candidate or the last name of the candidate is written in the space provided.”  This statutory language is odd.  It appears to permit only the candidate’s “last name” to suffice, and to disqualify any mistakes regarding a candidate’s first name.  For example, “Mark Murkowki” or “Jane Murkowski” would be rejected because neither is consistent with Lisa Murkowski.

But what if the ballot has “Lis Murkowski” with the “a” missing from Lisa?  Or “Liza Murkowski,” with a “z” instead of an “s”?  That’s not “as [the name] appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy.”  Sure, despite the discrepancy, we all know the voter’s intent in this situation.  But Alaska’s statute has an important extra provision: “The rules set out in this section are mandatory and there are no exceptions to them.  A ballot may not be counted unless marked in compliance with these rules.”  This provision would seem to prohibit judges and election officials from giving leeway to voters in counting ballots based on discerning evident voter intent despite minor deviations from the rules.

(By the way, on the specific issue raised by Paul in response to Thad, it would seem that this statutory provision indicates that a ballot should NOT be counted if the oval is completely unmarked even if the name is correct. The statute says that write-in ballot is counted if both “the oval is filled in” and the name is correctly included.  While there may are different ways to mark the oval validly, as Paul observes, not marking it at all would seem to fall outside of statutory compliance, and the provision says that no ballot may be counted unless it complies.)

Of course, this “mandatory compliance” provision doesn’t completely resolve all statutory doubt: maybe writing “Liza Murkowski”, despite the mistaken “z” for “s” is close enough to count as being the same as the name “as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy”.  The argument is that Lisa and Liza really are the same name, at least compared to Mark or Jane. If so, then the voter would have complied with the relevant mandatory rule, and there would be no need to make an exception.   But the problem with this sort of argument is that this key provision seems to tell judges and officials to err on the side enforcing the counting rule strictly, which would mean that “Liz” and “Liza” really aren’t the same as “Lisa” (despite obvious voter intent).

But the Alaska Elections Director was quoted as saying that “Lisa M” would be acceptable even if “Lisa” alone wouldn’t be enough.  That position seems inconsistent with the statute.  “M” is not the same as the candidate’s last name, which is required.

What I fear is litigation based on an argument that voters relied on the public pronouncements of the state’s Election Director, which appeared in the leading newspaper in the state’s largest city. Even if the Elections Director is flatly wrong under the statute, a court might accept a “due process” argument based on voter reliance.  There is some case law around the country to support that kind of argument.  (I haven’t looked at Alaska or Ninth Circuit precedents specifically on this point.)  That kind of reliance argument, by the way, did not play a role in Coleman v. Franken, because there was no claim that voters were relying on the possibility that election officials would engage in an excessively lenient interpretation of the rules for submitting absentee ballots in Minnesota.

More recent news stories from Alaska indicate some effort to clarify the situation:

Let’s hope that the issue is sufficiently clarified that it does not become a practical problem.   Or that the election is not close enough for the issue to make a difference.

Paul Gronke, Professor of Political Science at Reed College and Directory, Early Voting Information Center, will moderate the candidate debate between Tom Hughes and Bob Stacey for the Metro president.

Debate is sponsored by the City Club of Portland.

Jeff Zeleny of the NY Times had a nice piece on early voting yesterday, and how the rise of new balloting methods have altered political campaigns.

I notice that no academics were quoted in the piece, including of course, me! I think this is actually an accomplishment – while I have been predicting these changes to campaign strategy for years, there have been little hard data, or even anecdotes, illustrating the change.

Zeleny’s story, rather than relying on speculative quotes from scholars like myself, relies on quotes from candidates, party officials, and the like.  This is good – early voting has gone mainstream.  

And ironically, post-2010 and especially post-2012 is finally the time when academics will be able to finally weigh in with solid empirical data about the impact of early campaigns on voter behavior.  

Crossposted at


Thad Hall notes at Election Updates the Alaska statute regarding state law on rules for counting ballots, including write-ins.

I don’t agree with Thad, however, that the key question here is whether the oval is filled in properly. The law specifies that nearly any mark (“making “X” marks, diagonal, horizontal, or vertical marks, solid marks, stars, circles, asterisks, checks, or plus signs that are clearly spaced in the oval opposite the name of the candidate”) in the oval will count.

I have two reactions to Thad’s post. First, anyone taking the time to write in some variant of Lisa Murkowski would be likely to be able to make a mark in the oval (and one expects that the Murkowski campaign will go to great lengths to educate voters about the procedure).

Second, after Franken v. Coleman, can we actually be sure how a state or federal court will determine voter intent if there is a write-in but no mark in the oval? Maybe I can convince Ned Foley to weigh in…

This Sunday’s NYT ramped up the newspaper’s midterm election coverage, including a story highlighting a wave of negative advertising being put out by Democrats in tight races.

As we’ve argued in the past, the longer “Election Day” created by early voting is likely to change campaigns in a number of ways, including bringing forward the blitz of negative advertising that was traditionally reserved for later in the cycle:

Opposition research and attack advertising are used in almost every election, but these biting ads are coming far earlier than ever before, according to party strategists. The campaign has intensified in the last two weeks as early voting begins in several states and as vulnerable incumbents try to fight off an onslaught of influences by outside groups.

Update: new, improved, and available in PDF form. We’ve also provided a link to our Excel dataset. Check it out

We’ve just posted our early and absentee voting calendar for the 2010 general election. As Paul has noted, the election has already arrived in many states, with absentee ballots being delivered now in nearly half of America’s states.

The calendar itself is a work-in-progress: if you notice any glitches or errors – or just have comments – we’d love to hear from you.

It’s not readily printable yet – short of taking a screen capture – but we’ll be producing a true hard copy version as soon as possible, and that will be available at the same address.

I have given many talks about vote by mail / no excuse absentee voting in the past four years.  One of the most interesting topics is always voter intent–a concept foreign to many Midwesterners and East Coasters (election officials are generally aware from professional contacts).

The first national learning moment on voter intent was probably the contested Minnesota Senate race.  Now it looks like voter intent has hit the big time with the Murkowski announcement in Alaska.  

As I blogged about a few weeks ago, combine voter intent laws with a very lenient post-mark it by election day, a slow postal system in Alaska, a close race in Alaska, and the possibility that control of the Senate may rest with the state, and we have a recipe for a firestorm.

If you’re an election lawyer or election law/admin scholar, it might be good to clear your calendar for two weeks after Nov. 2.