Newby and Chapin nail it on early voting siting

It’s good when friends help friends!  I have been swamped this academic year, as my slow pace of blogging shows.

But this post by Doug Chapin, courtesy of Brian Newby, says in one post what I’ve been trying to tell folks for years.   Placing early voting locations is not as easy as creating a pop up Halloween store.  The combination of a short term lease and high end electrical, Internet, and accessibility needs make them as rare in some counties as Oregon sunshine in November.

Keep that in mind, Daily Kos and others, when criticizing officials.  Scrutinize them, for sure, but make sure you also understand what constraints they may be operating under.

Early voting reduces turnout?

So says a new academic study by the team at the University of Wisconsin.

The study is blogged about in detail at the Fact Tank at the Pew Center on the States and will undoubtedly spark some reaction.  The takeaway point for anyone interested in elections and turnout is that a simple minded rational choice model of turnout is, by itself, simply insufficient to understand voting behavior.  (This piece cites none of the “classic” turnout articles, nor should it.)

I’ve been critical of the Wisconsin approach in the past for failing to discriminate among different modes of early voting (they code no-excuse absentee and early in-person the same way) and, at least in past work, for relying only on data from 2008.  This study doesn’t address the first issue but does expand the universe to include the 2008 presidential contest, a significant advancement.

The study also demonstrates the value of peer-review.  Peer review is criticized because it is slow and deliberate.  But peer review makes it a lot more likely that scholars get to the right answer.  In this case, I’ve seen this paper through a number of versions (including acting as a reviewer), and the impact of peer review is very clear in the final product.

There are other pieces circulating that purport to address this question, including at least one that I reviewed recently showing an opposite result, controlling for the number of early voting locations in each jurisdiction.  This question is certainly not closed, but this piece is going to stand as an important marker in the field.

An early preview of my testimony tomorrow An early preview of my testimony tomorrow

The secret word for my testimony tomorrow at the Presidential Commission on Election Administration is diversity.  (Alternative secret words may be complexity or heterogeneity.)

Early and Absentee Voting Laws

The rise of early voting has added a new layers of diversity to an already incredibly diverse election system.  As the NCSL’s early and absentee voting law page shows, states have chosen different paths in adopting convenience voting systems.

The result is that voters have increasingly diverged nationwide in how they cast their ballots.  These map  from 2008 (the 2012 data is still incomplete) illustrates the pattern nationwide.

Compare the first map, which displays early voting rates overall, with the rates for voting by mail/absentee voting and early in-person voting (users should be able to click on the first map, then just hit the cursor keys to move between the maps).

Not only is there substantial variation among states and regions, but there are even large county by count differences within states.


Diversity and complexity characterize the American electoral landscape.  It’s going to be very challenging to come up with recommendations that are specific enough to make forward progress on some of the more challenging issues and also not so general that they are anodyne.


Pew’s Election Snapshot for California

Image courtesy of the Pew Elections Initiative

Pew’s Election Snapshot of California (see also here for a PDF) links to a nice graphic showing the dramatic rise in absentee voting in California.

Early Voting in the Granite State?

Image courtesy of

Early voting (no-excuse absentee and early in-person) is under consideration in New Hampshire as Gov. Maggie Hansen signed HB521, which establishes a “committee to study New Hampshire election laws and procedures.”

(These are not the only pieces of legislation concerning early voting that was considered this session:

The mandate for the committee under HB251 is fairly broad:

220:3 Duties. The committee shall study all current New Hampshire election laws and procedures and review all options to increase participation including but not limited to solutions to limit lines and wait times in casting ballots and voter registration, public education related to election law, election procedures, early voting, and absentee voting. The committee shall consult with and solicit testimony from the public in the course of its duties.

If it allowed early and no-excuse absentee voting, New Hampshire would join Vermont and Maine as the third New England state allowing these methods of balloting.  However, the state’s chief election officer, Secretary of State Bill Gardner, has already expressed skepticism.   Gardner says that early voting:

(D)iminishes the value of Election Day itself, because when you write stories about people voting and going to places to cast early ballots, when people read two or three more stories about voting, the significance of the one day itself is diminished in a lot of people’s minds.

Secretary Gardner also says that early voting actually decreases turnout: “how can you make it easier and by making it easier, you get fewer people voting…but that’s what the numbers show.”

On Gardner’s first point, I’d like to say that we have research on how early voting diminishes the value of Election Day, but the record is quite thin.

A seminal paper in the field by John Brehm, Wendy Rahn, and Neil Carlson showed that national elections do generate a small increase in “social capital”, shown by post-election increases in things like generalized trust in government, trust in others, and social identification with groups.  However, the cause of the increase was not the act of voting, or psychological engagement in the campaign.  Only mobilization contacts by political parties and candidate organizations directly increased social capital.

The Brehm et al. piece is based on the 1996 election, however, at least two generations ago in terms of elections, election administration, and election reform.  Brehm, Rahn, and Carlson never asked whether or not the mode of voting mattered–for them, an election consisted of mobilization by campaigns, by non-campaign organizations, a citizen’s engagement with the campaign, and the act of voting.

Others, including myself, have speculated that early voting may change the way individuals think about Election Day as a political and social event, but to date, no one has been able to establish any credible evidence in favor or against this hypothesis.  Martha Kropf  has revisited the question using date from 2004 and found that ” pre-Election Day voting has little effect on cooperative behaviors in a cross sectional survey.”  There have been to my knowledge no follow-up studies.

Perhaps this should not be surprising, given Brehm et al.’s original finding.  After all, far from diminishing campaign mobilization, all indications are that early voting increases the length and intensity of campaign activities.

None of this is particularly supportive of Secretary Gardner, but admittedly the research record is thin.

On the second point, however, the record is pretty thick and not at all supportive of the Secretary’s claim.  There is just one study out of the University of Wisconsin that purports to show a negative impact of early voting on turnout.  The study stands nearly alone in the field in showing a negative impact of early voting (some scholars have shown small declines under “forced” vote by mail in small precincts in California and others have shown that this effect can be offset by election advertising by local election officials).   As I have pointed out in the past, the Wisconsin paper is based only on one year’s worth of data (2008), does not discriminate between voting by mail or early in-person, and has not been published or replicated.  Dozens of other articles have shown the opposite result: a small but statistically significant increase in turnout.

The Wisconsin team publicized their findings in a NY Times op ed, and this may be what Secretary Gardner is relying on when he made that statement, but otherwise, I’d say the jury is decidedly out.

Secretary Gardner is exactly right, though, when he notes that New Hampshire already has high turnout, and any voting reform is likely to have marginal effects.

That’s what I find regrettable thus far; the committee has been empowered to “review all options to increase participation.”  If New Hampshire really wants to increase voter participation, they should make campaigns more competitive, make politics more interesting, get citizens more engaged, and raise the educational and income levels of your populace.  Those are the big drivers of turnout.

To borrow from Pew, election administration and reform is designed to make elections accurate, efficient, convenient, and secure.  

I hope New Hampshire considers this broader mandate, and doesn’t artificially limit themselves to voter turnout, or they are likely to be disappointed in the outcome.


Early Voting and Turnout: The Washington Case

Important new paper by Alan Gerber, Gregory Huber, and Seth Hill estimates the effects of moving to an all vote-by-mail system in the State of Washington.

The overall estimated impact of the change to VBM is 2.6% in presidential years, 3.3% in midterm years, and 3.8% in odd years, very close to estimates I’ve provided before (see here for an estimate based on national data and here for Oregon estimates).

Using individual level voter files, they find even larger effects on low propensity voters: 9.8 percentage points for those in the file who were only registered to vote at a polling place in 2008, followed by a 3.8 percentage point increase for those who did not vote in 2006, 7, and 8.

The piece is a nice empirical demonstration of how to work with individual voter history files as a way to evaluate an election reform, and it’s also nice to see that the oft-quoted “2-4% effect” (mostly coming out of my mouth) is sustained once again.

Hat tip to Doug Chapin: More Fun with Domicile. Taxes vs. Voting.

Glad to see my friend Doug Chapin back at the keyboard after a well-deserved hiatus.

Image courtesy of Metropolitan Knowledge Network

Doug’s postings about domicile  may seem tongue in cheek, but the issue of “domicile” versus “residence” was a heated issue in the most recent Portland mayor’s race.

As anyone from this part of the country knows, Oregon has no sales tax and Washington has no income tax.  This creates an interesting cross border dynamic between Portland and Vancouver, two cities that are part of one metropolitan area.  Not surprisingly, there is a large shopping mall and a number of car dealerships clustered near Oregon’s northern border.  And Clark County, WA has experienced a boom in suburban development over the past quarter century.

Charlie Hales, currently mayor of Portland, was one of these cross border residents for five years.  It turned out that he’d paid taxes in Washington from 2004-2009 but continued to be on the voting rolls and cast ballots in Oregon.

What appears to have been the key consideration in Hales’s case is that he was able to claim “temporary” residence in Washington because he “always intended to return to Oregon.”  This obligated him to list himself as a Washington resident for tax purposes but not for voting purposes.

The larger issue that Doug refers to is how “domicile” for tax purposes differs from “domicile” for voting purposes.  This may seem like an irrelevant distinction to most citizens, but anyone who has paid taxes in more than one jurisdiction or lived overseas and had to choose a “domicile” for voting knows the issue can be far from simple.

APSA Panel on Shelby County case

A very interesting panel coming up at the APSA meetings in Chicago is shown below.  My only worry is that Rick Hasen has already posted his paper on SSRN. Doesn’t Rick realize that APSA papers are not supposed to be written prior to a week before the conference?

Looks like a great panel, and I’ll definitely be there.

Law and Political Process Study Group
Panel 1   The Future of the Voting Rights Act After the Shelby County Case
Date: Thursday, Aug 29, 2013, 2:00 PM-3:45 PM
Location: Room assignments are pending. Check back soon for room assignments. Only those registered for the meeting can view room assignments. Subject to change. Check the Final Program at the conference.
Chair(s): Bruce E. Cain
Stanford University,
Regional Differences in Racial Polarization in the 2012 Presidential Election: Implications for the Constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act
Charles Stewart
Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
  Stephen D. Ansolabehere
  Harvard University,
Racially Polarized Voting, Dilution, and Preclearance: Post-Shelby County
Richard L. Engstrom
Duke University,
Shelby County and the Illusion of Minimalism
Richard L. Hasen
University of California-Irvine,
The Constitutional Structure of Voting Rights Enforcement
Franita Tolson
Florida State University,
Discussant(s): Luis Ricardo Fraga
University of Washington,
Guy-Uriel Charles
Duke University School of Law,


Tracking the Early Voter Tracking the Early Voter

Michael McDonald has a new column reporting early voting rates in 2012, compared to previous years, using the Current Population Survey’s Voting and Registration Supplement. The trends in early voting have been picked up by Rick Hasen and Doug Chapin, but Doug rightly highlights this caveat from Mike’s column:

[I]t is instructive to keep in mind that the Census Bureau statistics are drawn from a survey. We will get more information later this summer with the United States Election Assistance Commission reports early voting statistics from election officials. An interesting difference between these two sources is that election officials do not report when a voter cast their mail ballot; in some states, voters can return their mail ballots on Election Day. So, election officials will likely report a higher early voting rate than the Census Bureau as their statistics in some states include persons who voted by mail on Election Day.

Doug (and Mike) speculate that the differences may be due in part to no-excuse absentee voters who turn in their ballots on Election Day and tell the CPS that they voted “on Election Day”.

This is possible, but the postings highlight the ongoing challenge of collecting consistent and reliable information on the American elections system, especially information on things like early voting that are were not part of elections reporting systems just a decade ago.

Tracking the early vote has been a part of EVIC’s mission since our founding in 2004.  A decade ago, few states or jurisdictions tracked no-excuse or early in-person ballots, and most polling organizations didn’t pay much attention either.  Early voting crept up quietly on survey organizations; in 2000, our best estimate is that 16.26% of citizens cast a ballot prior to Election Day.  This figure jumped nearly 50% in 2004, when  22.7% of citizens cast a ballot prior to Election Day.  Anyone interested in American elections had to pay attention to the early vote.

There are three separate sources of information on the early vote.  The good news is that the sources correlate highly, both across states and over time.  The bad news is there is a persistent gap on the low-end, using the Current Population Survey’s Voting and Registration Supplement (VRS) and on the high end using data drawn from the Associated Press’s Election Services Unit.

In the table below, we report early voting totals from these three different sources for 2008 and 2010 (the CPS is used by McDonald in his column).  Next we report data from the Election Assistance Commission’s Election Administration and Voting Survey.  The third column reports information graciously provided by the Associated Press’s Elections Tabulation and Research Unit.

2008 28.45% 32.40% 34.00%
2010 24.95% 28.50% 30.50%


The CPS is a survey, one of the largest and best available, and the only way we have to track voter participation using different modes of balloting prior to 2004, when almost no other survey organizations were asking about alternative modes of balloting.

Prior to 2004, the CPS asked the question in a different way.  PES4 (2002 and prior) asked the respondent whether they “voted in person on election day or before, or by mail.”   From 2004 onwards, the CPS asked (PES5) “Did you vote in person or did you vote by mail?” and followed up with (PES6)“Was that on election day or before election day?”

McDonald’s and Chapin’s comments zero in on the number of respondents who cast a “by-mail” ballot but returned it on Election Day.  In some jurisdictions, the number of citizens who cast a ballot this way are not inconsequential.  According to Dean Logan, Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk of Los Angeles County, 202,584 vote by mail ballots were delivered in person to polling places in 2012.  These totaled 6.3% of all ballots and 20.8% of no-excuse absentee ballots.  Nationwide, however, the totals are far lower.  In the 2012 CPS, only 458 or 59713 respondents, or 0.76% of all voters said the “voted by mail” and “voted on Election Day.  To Doug’s point about California, twice as many Californians gave this response than nationally (8.27% vs. 4.83% of vote by mail respondents).

It doesn’t appear that the question wording made much of a material difference in how citizens reported voting (see the graphic below), although the terrain was changing so rapidly that it would be nearly impossible to separate question wording effects from actual changes in rates.

Source: Current Population Survey Voting and Registration Supplement

Source: Current Population Survey Voting and Registration Supplement

Our second source is the EAC.  This is generally the best source for early voting returns, especially since 2008 when state response rates have improved dramatically.  There is only one minor quibble with the EAC, and it’s not with their data but their reports.  The reports calculate statistics exactly as the states report them, even though the agency continues to wrestle with non-response problems.  The careful user needs to be attentive to this fact.  For instance, in 2010, Table 28A in the EAVS has 4678 reporting jurisdictions and 90,810,679 total voters.  The same table reports that 8.2% of votes were cast early in-person, basing that result on 2318 jurisdictions.

The means that the EAC data probably slightly underreport the number of early in-person and no-excuse absentee voters.

Our third source is the AP.  The Associated Press’s Elections Services Unit is an interesting entity.  The AP is a no-profit cooperative of news organizations, and the Elections Unit begins to compile data from states and counties on early in-person and no-excuse ballots as soon as this information is available.  They use this information on election night to help supplement their vote tabulation work.  Post-election, they shift into a different mode, trying to assemble official results on total ballots cast, total vote, early votes cast/counted, mail ballot absentees cast/counted, provisional cast/counted, including digging down into precinct level certified results to compile some information not available from counties or states (including valuable breakouts of “advance” vs election day votes by candidate for key races).

In my past work, I’ve relied heavily on the AP’s data, because, unlike the EAC, they have reported results in a relatively consistent fashion back to 2000, and unlike the CPS, the data are ideally based on certified election returns and not on survey results.

These different data sources reflect different perceptions of the same reality.  The Census Bureau data is invaluable because it tells us what voters did behaviorally and over 20 or more years.  The EAC provides us insight into how states and local jurisdictions have categorized their ballots three to six months after the election.

If I were to make one suggestion, it would be to look closely at what is being done by the AP.  The AP has a strong incentive to continue to go back to local jurisdictions and make sure that its final figures our correct.

The same incentives should be applied to whatever entity continues to collect the data for the EAVS.  The EAC currently is focused on producing a congressionally mandated series of post-election reports.  After that point, they are little incentive–and no funding–to go back and correct or amend their data.  It would not be hard to provide a data collection and funding model that would incentivize not just timely reporting, but also ongoing data maintenance.