With apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog election breakdowns and complaints  in the night-time our state or locality.”

Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time election ran well.”

Holmes: “That was the curious incident real story.”[2]

A great new initiative was just announced by ProPublica (hat tip to Rick Hasen). ElectionLand is described  as a national reporting initiative that will cover voting problems during the 2016 election.

Participants include Google News Lab, WNYC, UniVision, and a number of other national and regional news networks.  Reporters and organizations that sign up will receive:

  • Real-time alerts about problems happening at polling locations in your coverage area, including long lines, machine breakdowns, an uptick in provisional balloting, ballot confusion, fraudulent voting and more.
  • Inclusion and promotion of your election stories on social media and the Electionland liveblog.
  • Customizable alerts for real-time data about the candidates and races you care about, drawing on federal campaign finance data, congressional voting data, trending searches, and more.
  • Reporting recipes, tip sheets, and community calls.

This all sounds great but…  the focus here is all on voting problems.  Voting problems make for good copy. But do voting problems in some areas reflect on the typical voting experience?  Does the existence of problems in some areas mean that the system as a whole is functioning poorly?

The answer generally is “no.”   Lorraine Minnite demonstrated this six years ago in a book that should be required reading for any journalist who participates in ElectionLand.  Charles Stewart, Michael Sances, and I recently showed that charges of a “rigged” election erode American confidence in our election system even though the charges bear little resemblance to the realities of American election administration.

I hope that ElectionLand participants don’t take the easy route, focusing on stories about election breakdowns, snafus, and possibly even outright fraud–with over 10,000 jurisdictions and 150 million voters, there are surely going to be some problems–while ignoring an elections system that generally functions well.

The problems are problems, and they need to be fixed.  But let’s not reinforce the all too common belief that our system is permeated with fraud, beset by problems, and easily manipulated.  Unfortunately, that kind of story is seldom clickbait.


Why best practices are so important for absentee ballots: Austrian edition
Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 11.54.47 AM

BPC Report on Voting by Mail

Those of you who follow my twitter feed or this blog have seen me engage in friendly debates with Doug Chapin and Tammy Patrick over best practices for absentee ballots and voting by mail.  It is always in a spirit of helping to figure out the best way to handle the growing number of absentee ballots in the United States and avoid election meltdowns.

This came to mind today as I read about the unprecedented decision by the Austrian highest court to order a new run-off election, apparently because of “irregularities” in how local election officials handled absentee ballots. According to testimony, absentee ballots were processed (which generally means signatures checked, ballots separated from secrecy envelopes, and ballots scanned or otherwise counted) on election day, and without proper monitors, rather than starting at 9 am the next morning, as required by law.

There was no evidence of purposeful manipulation and no indication that the irregularities changed the outcome.  Scientific analysis shows no evidence of election fraud.  Yet what the Court described as “sloppy management” led the jurists to overturn a national election at political moment where the European integration project is at risk.

Tammy, Doug, and I may have our friendly disagreements about some aspects of the vote by mail process, but we all agree that absentee ballots are subject to some unique risks because they leave the hands of government officials.  Slow counts because of archaic absentee ballot counting rules can needlessly create a space for conspiracy theories.  (I could be wrong, but I know of no American states at this point that don’t allow officials to start to at least begin to process the absentee ballots on or before Election Day, subject to appropriate scrutiny of course.)

I’m heartened to see a newly released Bipartisan Policy Center report, The New Realities of Voting By Mail in 2016.  It contains many excellent recommendations for voters, election officials, the USPS, and state legislators.  Many of these same recommendations could improve election integrity in other countries, where, according to the ACE Network, more than 20% of ballots are cast by mail (with totals much higher in many nations).

Great story by Nate Cohn in the New York Times on different demographic estimates of the electorate, features extensive quotes from election science scholars Michael McDonald and Bernard Fraga. Perhaps we can even claim Yair Ghitza as a fellow traveller?  

Evaluating Pollsters and Polls: Portland Local Edition

The “quants” have taken quite a hit this year, most notably Nate Silver’s mea culpa.  I’m not going to summarize the discussions song and verse, I’ll just refer people to the excellent commentators at Huffington Pollster (political science PhD!) and Monkey Cage, among others.   Where they differ from many media outlets is that they almost never trumpet the result of a single poll.  The results of a single poll are seldom newsworthy and are much more prone to error.

What is certainly wrong is the kind of muddled, ostrich head in the sand by Virgil and Carl, who have decided that since they stuck their fingers in the air (and by way, were clearly reading newspaper coverage and polls) and did a better job this one year in a few primaries than Nate Silver, that therefore all polls and all quantitative analysis of elections is pure bunk.

That’s hogwash, but what worries me is how many of my friends and colleagues seem to believe this kind of clap trap, and mainly because they are acting like regular old human beings.  They remember the polls this year that were off–and therefore newsworthy–without remembering the vast majority that were right on target.

Which brings me to a mild defense of my good friends at DHM Research and a mild criticism of my good friend at the Willamette Week, Aaron Mesh.

Aaron lists DHM as one of the “losers” in the May primary:

DHM Research

The Portland pollsters not only failed to predict Sen. Bernie Sanders’ win in the Oregon Democratic primary—they missed it by a whopping 28 percentage points.

Yep, that poll result for the Clinton/Sanders race was a real boner, and John Horvick of DHM deserves credit for being up front about the bad estimate.

But just like one poll is not the best way to predict a race, one race within a larger poll is not the best way to evaluate a firm.  If you look across all the candidate races that DHM asked about in their May poll, things look a lot different.  Mesh focused on the tree–the presidential contest–while ignoring the forest.

In the GOP contests for President, Sec’y of State and Governor’s race, the average “miss” was between 1.7% and 2.4% (all estimates shown below allocate the “don’t knows” proportionally–thus understating any last minute shifts in sentiment).  In the mayor’s race, even with a large pool of candidates and a high percentage of “don’t knows,” the average miss was just 1.5%, and Wheeler’s margin was off by just 3%.

Something was going on in the Clinton/Sanders race, but the pattern of other results indicate that it was probably something about that contest, about respondents willingness to provide answers, or volatile sentiments more than it was something about response rates, survey methodology, or firm bias.

More importantly, coverage of the poll points out a weakness in Oregon’s political and media environment–we really have just a single dominant polling firm with only a scattered set of other polls being conducted, mostly by national firms using robo-calls, without many of the detailed questions that a local or regional pollster would ask.

We’d all be better informed, and less likely to focus on a single result, if there were a few more players in the field.

Anyone who wants to spreadsheet used to create these figures, just drop me a line.


How partisanship can undermine perceptions of election fairness and integrity

Adam Ambrogi and Paul DeGregorio wrote today about “The 5 Principles of Election Integrity.”

The article highlights the challenge for election integrity that is created when we local election officials are chosen by competitive partisan contests:

In most cases, election administrators work hard to be fair and transparent and to promote integrity. But a large percentage of election officials are elected to their offices on a partisan ticket or appointed on partisan basis. This can lead some to believe that these officials will favor one political party over another in their decisions.

This is exactly right–in an era of deep partisan polarization, even ostensibly non-partisan policies can be swept up in partisan competition.  Partisan and ideological sorting creates a worrisome feedback loop, where partisans express deep levels of distrust and even anger at any political actor from the opposite party, no matter how anodyne the statement or non-partisan the issue.

I have been collecting data on public perception of election officials using the Cooperative Congressional Election Study for a number of years.   In 2010, I asked a series of questions about public attitudes toward local and state election officials, including how they should be elected and whether or not they could be fair in election disputes.

The results are both encouraging and discouraging.

Source: 2010 CCES

Source: 2010 CCES

The encouraging result is that local election officials receive high levels of approval when compared to the US Congress, the Supreme Court, and state governors and legislatures.  (Higher scores mean a higher level of approval; scores above zero mean that a majority of respondents said they either “strongly approved” or “approved” of the job performance.)

Source: 2010 CCES

Source: 2010 CCES



When it comes to how we should choose local election officials, the survey respondents endorse elections, but are more than twice as likely to opt for non-partisan versus partisan contests.  This is neither encouraging nor discouraging, but is what I (and I think Ambrogi and DeGregorio) would expect.

The more discouraging results appear when I asked respondents about election disputes, and whether or not state (not local) election officials would act fairly in resolving such a dispute.
Untitled 2

It’s encouraging that a plurality of 39% do think that state officials would be fair, but more than half the survey thought they would not be fair or didn’t know.

And among those who answered “no” or “don’t know,” just over one-third thought that election officials would favor their own party.

I wondered if there were partisan differences underlying this second question, and it turns out that there are.   As we would expect in an era of party polarization, partisans are worried that elections officials would favor candidates of the other party.  But what jumps out to me are the totals in the third column.  Democrats and Independents mostly assume that election officials will decide disputes in favor of their own party; Republicans choose this option only slightly less often than “favoring Democrats.”

Untitled 3

The good news, I suppose, is that almost 40% of respondents think that election officials will be fair in the case of an election dispute.  But among the other 60%, they assume that partisan self-interest is the way disputes are resolved.

As long as partisanship invades election administration via competitive elections, and as long as elections continue to be close (and disputed), perceptions of fairness and integrity of election administration will remain at risk in some quarters.



Understanding postage paid mail: not simple!

I’ve experienced a long day of education–or should I say reeducation–at the hands of my friends in the elections community.

Business reply mail allows a sender (“the mailer”) to distributed preprinted First-Class mail to customers.  The return postage is paid by the mailer, not the customer.  Postage is collected on a per-piece fee only on pieces that are returned.  One colleague in the elections community says this cost is approximately twice the normal first class postage. The rate for BRM is .476 + .011 – .476 + .066 per piece depending on volume (and some account fees).Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 5.14.56 PM

I have another good friend who is rapidly sawing away, because he tells me that business reply mail does dramatically increase response rates for registration mailers and change of address mailers, so he believes that prepaid postage will increase turnout and increase by-mail return rates. I’m trying to get more information on this…


The cost of requiring postage on all ballots will be the annual account fees plus either .487 or .542 per piece of  returned mail.  The current by-mail return rate is approximately 40%.   There is almost no incentive to switch to actual first class postage until the rate of by-mail return exceeds 90%, and that’s not likely.


What’s interesting is that legislation that would require pre-paid postage might actually create fairly strong incentives to encourage citizens to drop off their ballots.

That may be an unintended consequence of the legislation, though not necessarily a bad one.  One common criticism of voting by mail is that ballots leave the hands of government officials; drop boxes eliminate that on the back end.

I leave this to those with much more expertise in direct mailing to point out the flaws in this logic.  I’ve learned more about business reply mail in the last two days than I ever wanted to know!  (Memories of my days learning about signature verification software …)

ANSWER: W=0.  If you use business reply, there is no cost for unreturned mail.  Thanks PM.  I told you there would be math!  Doing the hypothetical calculations on "wasted" pre-paid postage in Oregon's VBM system

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More corrections in the next posting.  

There are two details about business reply mail that I was not aware of. First, there is no cost to the sender for business reply mail that is not returned.  Second, there is twice the postage cost for business reply that is returned.  

As Dean Logan once told me, running elections in some jurisdictions is like running a direct mail operation, and some of the details are very specific.  I apologize for mistakes in the original version of this posting.

Don Palmer, senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center and previously chief elections officer in Virginia and in Florida wonders about the costs of ballots that are not returned (and I presume also not mailed).

Don uses 140 characters to pose a devilishly complex question.  It is easy to figure out the cost of adding postage–just take the number of ballot envelopes (in Oregon, this is roughly equal to the number of registered voters, the only adjustments are for the small number of individuals who have provisions in place not to have their ballot mailed because of court protection orders and similar) and multiply by the cost of postage.

There are no costs at all for unreturned business mail.  Thanks to Tammy Patrick  at BPC for pointing me to this link explaining business reply mail http://pe.usps.com/mpdesign/mpdfr_brm_intro.asp. From that page:

The Postal Service collects the applicable postage, plus a per-piece fee, only on pieces that customers actually send back to the mailer. This allows mailers to save postage costs on large volumes of distributed reply pieces when a response is not assured.

The rest of this is just an academic exercise.  I’m leaving most intact because it identifies all the various categories of voters that may or may not respond to postage paid return envelopes.

For the purpose of this exercise, let’s call the total number of ballot envelopes N, the cost of postage P, and the “waste” as W.

We know the state will be on the hook for N*P, estimated at $1.2 million per election. (To make the calculations easier to follow, I’ll just assume P=1 for the rest of this posting.)

But how much of this expense is “wasted” (W)?  NONE. I think Don is asking: how many postage paid envelopes are either not returned or are returned into drop boxes?

This calculation isn’t simple. Let’s assume that counties will not reduce the number of drop boxes (thus making it harder to drop off ballots) in response to this change. 

Let’s start with the 2012 election as our baseline.  There were 2,199,360 registered voters in the 2012 election, and 1,541,782, or 82.8% turned out to vote.

This gives us our first piece of baseline number of non-voters in Oregon  W –657,578.

Note that this assumes that voter turnout is unaffected by the inclusion of the stamp. I’m not comfortable making any assumptions about turnout, as I detailed in the previous post, but if you agree with advocates that this will help younger voters, lower income voters, and rural voters, then you’d need to make some adjustment to allow for increase turnout (hence lower waste).

Our second piece of W non-mail returns comes from the 59% of voters who currently drop off their ballots.  If everyone who currently drops off ballots continues to do so, this adds an enormous amount of waste: 1,066,939.  (This figures comes straight from the Secretary of State’s report on methods of ballot return.)

That’s a pretty big number, but we have to subtract ballots that are sent by mail in the future because of free postage but were dropped off in the past.  Here’s where thing get fun–and hard.  Predicting how future behavior will change based on changes to the rules is the essence of modern political science, but is also an exercise fraught with uncertainty.

We reported yesterday the reasons given for dropping off a ballot.

I think it’s fair to assume that the 18.8% who cited “cost” or “no stamp” would mail under the new system.  That reduces W drop offs by .188 * 1,066,939=200,584.

I also think it’s fair to assume that those who cited security concerns (17.9%) or said “I was too late to mail” (12.8%) would not change their future behavior.  These total 327,550 (.307*1,066,939) voters who will continue to drop off their ballot.

This leaves us with two sets of voters–those who cited “Convenience” as a reason to drop off their ballot (40.2%) and those who cited “Habit” (6%).  I’ll assume both of these groups will change their behavior and use the mail–this increases the mail flow by reduces W by 46.2%*1,066,939=492,925.

We’re nearly done.  Our current estimate of waste is made of up those who don’t vote (657,578) plus those who have security concerns or who complete their ballots too late to mail (327,550).

The total is 985,128 ballots with business reply envelopes  paid postage that are either not returned or continue to be dropped off.  (Mathematically minded readers will notice that there are 5% of the drop off ballots that are unaccounted for–these are individuals who gave no reason for dropping off, or gave a reason that we could not code.)

Just one more complication.  Things are never easy!

Automatic voter registration (AVR) in Oregon (known in the state as “Oregon Motor Voter”) throws another wrench into the works.

AVR is projected to add as many as 275,000 citizens to the registration rolls, but it remains very unclear how many of these new registrants will actually vote.  This will increase the number of “wasted” ballot materials s and postage paid ballot envelopes, but by how many?

I think it would be generous to assume that half of these new registrants will vote, and if the same 30.7% vote late or don’t trust the postal system, that will result in another 42,212 wasted ballots.

The main sources of uncertainty in my estimate, for those advocating for and against this legislation:

  • The number of individuals who turn out overall may increase as a result of pre-paid business reply postage.  Non-voters are the largest source of waste in any universal ballot delivery system.
  • My estimate of turnout among the newly registered (AVR) citizens may also be low.  I used a very generous estimate of 50% even though academic research estimates this value to be as low as 25%.
  • Campaigns and vote mobilization organizations respond to changes in the rules and the laws, and it may be that these organizations will react to pre-paid postage by encouraging more citizens to vote their ballots early (reducing the “too late” numbers) and will be able to convince voters that the postal service is trustworthy (that’s going to be a much more difficult lift).

That being said, I think an estimate of approximately one million ballots that are not returned in a presidential year is within the right ballpark. In non-presidential years, the numbers will be much higher–15% higher in midterms and 60% higher in special elections.

And let’s be clear–if the focus is solely on “waste”, universal ballot delivery incurs many more costs by mailing ballots to everyone.  Oregon officials can tell you how much it costs to prepare and deliver a ballot to every registered voter, but I have been schooled by my friends and now know that and I suspect that 30 cent (total guess!) business class postage doesn’t increase the per-ballot costs at all by that much for those ballots that are unreturned.

Advocates will assert that it is in these low turnout elections, such as specials, that there is substantially more room for increases in turnout due to pre-paid business reply postage.  The problem is that these elections already are among the lowest turnout in the state even with universal mail delivery.




Is postage a barrier to voting by mail?  SB1586 in Oregon will require postage paid for VBM

Senate Bill 1586
, which will require Oregon election officials to provide postage paid envelopes for the return of vote by mail ballots, was reported out of the Senate Rules Committee and is making its way to the floor will be discussed in a public hearing tomorrow, Feb. 24.

This is an interesting bill.  At first blush, it seems like a reasonable accommodation to make voting easier.  But as we’ve learned in many cases, making voting easier often does not increase turnout.  Adam Berinsky summarizes the situation nicely:

The problem, I believe, is that when we talk about the “costs” of voting, we have been thinking about the wrong kinds of costs—the direct costs of registering to vote and casting a ballot. Most politicians and scholars have focused reform efforts on these tangible barriers to voting, making it easier for all citizens to vote, regardless of their personal circumstances. But, as I have argued elsewhere, the more significant costs of participation are the cognitive costs of becoming involved with and informed about the political world. Studies of voting from the last 60 years make this point clear. Political interest and engagement, after all, determine to a large extent who votes and who does not.

The specifics of adding a pre-paid envelope can be a lot more complicated and the impact more difficult to predict than they might appear at first blush.

A large proportion of Oregon voters do not return their ballots by mail–they drop them off at county offices or at drop boxes.  56% of Oregon voters in the 2014 Survey of the Performance of American Elections report that they returned their ballots in person, and these data align closely to state figures.  The percentage returning by means other than mail have been creeping upwards in recent years, according to the Oregon Division of Elections.

BallotMethodDelivery_2014This had led Phil Keisling, the granddaddy of vote by mail in Oregon, to call the system “Universal Vote By Mail”, not voting by mail, because what is key is universal ballot delivery, not return by the postal service.  The point here is that prepaid postage will impact a shrinking portion of the current voting population.

Untitled 2In order to understand the reasons for the choice to hand drop better, I coded the 117 SPAE survey responses into four categories: convenience (“close by”, “on my commute”, “easy”), cost (“save money”, “I didn’t have a stamp”, “cheaper”), too late to mail (“last minute”, “make sure it gets there on time”), habit (“Always do it this way”, “In Oregon we can drop it off”), and security (“don’t trust the post office”, “mail theft”, “make sure it’s counted”).  I was very generous in coding cost so that even if the reason started with another rationale, any mention of costs, dollars, expenses, “didn’t have a stamp”, etc was coded as cost.

Most voters said they chose to return their ballots by mail because it was more convenient or because they had security concerns.  Just under 20%, or 11.8% of all voters (20% of the 59% who dropped their ballots) said they returned their ballots by mail due to cost or inability to get a stamp .  11.8% is not minimal, but these 11.8% also found it possible to return the ballot by other means.  Unfortunately, we have no information about those who chose not to vote at all because they couldn’t buy a stamp.

The Oregon Bus Project is advocating for this legislation, and they claim that young people today don’t know where to buy stamps or can’t because it’s too inconvenient:

Because post offices have been closing, many Oregonians must go out of their way to purchase a stamp in order to cast a ballot. Millennials often go to school, work multiple jobs, and are not available to go to the post office during business hours, leaving them with few options.

This claim stretches credulity.  Stamps can be purchased at any grocery and many convenience stores, most of which (at least in Portland metro) are open 24 hours.  It may be harder for rural voters to purchase stamps, but I suspect that rural voters are much more used to using the postal service on a regular basis.

Even if the state does require paid postage, there’s another wrinkle–business mail is handled differently than first class mail, and this could require other changes to Oregon’s vote by mail system.  A study conducted by the California Voting Foundation showed that prepaid postage slowed the processing of ballots because of the way business mail has to be processed and billed (see Section IV.6 of this report http://calvoter.org/issues/votereng/votebymail/study/findings.html#h10) (boldface added)

All three counties have postal accounts to cover additional postage costs (though they don’t advertise it). The “postage due” costs were relatively minimal in all counties, typically amounting to a few hundred dollars in a major election. While some have suggested providing postage-paid envelopes to all VBM voters (and not just those overseas or living in an all vote-by-mail precinct as current law provides), doing so can actually delay VBM ballot processing since postage paid mail is typically sent business class, not first class. In addition, the cost must be debited from the account holder before the mail piece can be delivered. Ensuring postage-paid mail is debited from the correct account adds extra time to ballot processing and can further delay the return of voted ballots.

Moving to pre-paid mail may have to be accompanied by changes in the timeline for vote by mail ballots–when they are mailed out and when they can be returned (possibly including a provision that would only require ballots to be postmarked by election day). There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s a consequence of the change that needs to be addressed.

Requiring pre-paid postage may be a very reasonable improvement to Oregon’s vote by mail system. By lowering the barrier to returning the ballot, it could help a small number of citizens who currently find it too expensive or inconvenient to purchase a stamp and can’t drop off their ballot.  All indications, however, are that the impact will be quite low. What we do know for certain is that the change would cost the state approximately $1.2 million per election.

I’ve often heard advocates argue that “you cannot put a price on the right to vote,” and in principle this is true, but in practice, everything has a cost, and we have to evaluate those costs relative to other ways we can improve elections.

Let me close by referencing another reform that I am in the midst of examining–ballot tracking.  Ballot tracking was recommended by the Presidential Commission on Election Administration as a way to address public concerns about the security of the vote by mail ballots, and has been adopted by a number of jurisdictions that handle large numbers of vote by mail ballots.  Ballot tracking systems have been put in place by a number of jurisdictions that use voting by mail.  Ballot Trace, for example, used by Denver County, has won national awards.

But the question needs to be asked: does ballot tracking really improve public faith and confidence in the system?   Does anyone really track their ballots?  Indications thus far are that only a tiny percentage of voters actually use the ballot tracking systems.  Is this a solution in search of a problem?  Before we spend millions of dollars on free postage paid envelopes or ballot tracking systems, we should have a good answer to these questions.

Criticizing the Iraq War remains a winning strategy, even for GOP candidates


Data: 2014 CCES

Data: 2014 CCES

As the South Carolina results roll in, many of the commentators on CNN seem flummoxed by the fact that Donald Trump criticized the war in Iraq and still won in South Carolina, “a state with a high number of conservatives and veterans.”

But do conservatives and veterans think the war in Iraq was a mistake or not?  CNN seems to think they do.

The reality is that public views of the war are very mixed–Democrats overwhelmingly think the war was a mistake, Independents (who are able to vote in the SC primary), and Republicans continue to support the war.

Source: 2014 CCES

Source: 2014 CCES


What about veterans?  The assumption on CNN seems to be that veterans would support the war, but in fact they do not.  Veterans, whether measured as “I served in the military” or “I  am a member of a military family” are almost evenly divided on the wisdom of invading Iraq.

There are many reasons that Trump won SC, but his criticism of the Iraq War should not surprise anyone.  Among Independents, Democrats, and even members of the military, the war remains very unpopular.

Here’s a nice followup to the article I just posted.  It describes a 10 year followup to a Democracy Fellows program at Wake Forest University.

Takeaway quote:

Our analysis of both the quantitative and qualitative data revealed that there continue to be significant differences between the Democracy Fellows and the class cohort. Although both groups dislike the degree of political polarization they encounter in their daily lives, the fellows continue to be more engaged in the political process than does the class cohort.

News story from the Greensboro Record and the followup study published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.