Early voting script being used in WI by GOP Early voting script being used in WI by GOP

Nice posting by Peter Hamby of CNN:

The Constitutionality of Early Voting

Just got this email:

Dear Prof. Gronke,

 I, and my colleagues, have been unable to satisfactorily answer this question, “If by law voting shall be held on the “first Tuesday after the first Monday in November” how is it that we have ‘early voting?'”   My state of Michigan does not have early voting so I/we don’t have any first hand experience with this practice. I first posed this question to Dr. Michael McDonald and he replied that early voting is legal as the result of a Supreme Court case involving the state of Oregon, but he was unable to recall the name of the case.  As an expert in these matters, I was hoping that you might be able to provide the name of the case so that I can do further research and be better able to supply an informed answer.

 Thank you in advance,

Here is my response.  This probably should be part of another FAQ.

Thanks for the great question.

The time, place, and manner of holding elections, as you are aware, is “prescribed in each state”, but “congress may at any time by law make or alter such Regulations” as specified in Section IV Article 1 of the Constitution.    The law establishing the first Tuesday was passed in 1844 (see here if you’re going to show this in a class, it’s pretty cool): http://memory.loc.gov/ll/llsl/005/0700/07590721.tif

The Constitutional basis of holding early voting is actually a case involving Texas.  In a 1999 suit, the Voting Integrity Project brought suit against the Secretary of State of Texas charging the early voting in the state violated 2 USC 7 (the statute shown above).

The District Court denied the motion for summary judgment, the 5th Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court declined to review.

The 5th Circuit decision is here: http://federal-circuits.vlex.com/vid/voting-integrity-project-elton-bomer-18387341

The argument of Texas, affirmed by the Court, is that because the election is not decided or  “consummated” prior to the 1st Tuesday, then this means early voting does not conflict with Federal statute.  This relies on a very specific meaning of “election” which, in the words of the court, and relying on the Foster case.

Foster is instructive on the the meaning of “election.” 522 U.S. at 68, 118 S.Ct. at 466. The Court observed first that the term “election” in federal election statutes “plainly refer[s] to the combined actions of voters and officials meant to make a final selection of an officeholder.” Id. at 71, 118 S.Ct. at 467. In striking down Louisiana’s open primary statute, the Supreme Court held only that elections must not be “consummated” before federal election day. Id. at 72, n.4, 118 S.Ct. at 468.

It may interest you to know that jurisdictions honor the letter of the law in another way.  While it is true that citizens can cast early ballots, these ballots are not actually tallied until Election Day.  In some states,your vote sits on an electronic memory card.  In Oregon, the physical ballots are not even scanned until Election Day.

Dumb quote of the day out of Wisconsin

If the election was held today, President Barack Obama would lose the state of Wisconsin because where his base is, we have not turned out the vote early,” Mayor Michael Hancock told a Democratic rally. “The suburbs and rural parts of Wisconsin – the Republican base – are voting. President Obama’s base has yet to go vote.

So reports Alan Blinder in the Washington Examiner.

Why dumb quote of the day.  The election isn’t being held today, Mayor Hancock.  The early electorate and the Election Day electorate are very different, particularly in Wisconsin, which has come to the early voting world rather late.

This is not the first time, and won’t be the last time, we see wild inferences being drawn from the early vote.

First Three Days of Early In Person Voting In Florida First Three Days of Early In Person Voting In Florida

Keep in mind that Democrats and African Americans are far heavier users of early in person voting. We cannot gain access to the absentee ballot files. That being said, here are results for the first three days.

A Citizens Guide to Elections Data Analysis A Citizens Guide to Elections Data Analysis

Collapsing the data from individual to date

A hat tip for today’s posting goes to Charles Stewart of MIT, whose “Political Science Laboratory” course inspired me to engage my introductory statistics students in data management using real data sources.

Regular readers of this blog may have seen graphics plotting the daily ballot returns from North Carolina.  The graphics are identical to the kind of ballot chasing  engaged in by the presidential campaigns, and really any campaign in a state with substantial early voting.

The ballot return information is a public record, and theoretically, any citizen, organization, or campaign should have equal access.  Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple.  As Michael McDonald reports:

Election officials may not report early voting statistics. I attempt to collect as much of the information about these ballots as possible. However, I do not hound election officials for these statistics because they are busy doing the important work of preparing for the upcoming election. Sometimes data will be available only at the local level. I cannot continuously scan for local data, so I appreciate tips on where to find data.

I wish every state made these data available for a free electronic download.  If your state does not, I urge you to contact your state legislator and see why not.

But suppose you do have these data: what do you do with them?

It turns out that it’s not very hard to go from individual level vote reports to turnout information, if you have the right toolbox.  The tool you need is a statistical program capable of reading in datafiles that have hundreds of thousands of cases.  That’s too many for Excel.  The most commonly used packages in political science are Stata (the example shown below) and R.  (The big advantage of R is that it is publicly available, but I’m not conversant yet with the software.  My hopes are that some entrepreneurial reader of this blog will translate the Stata code into R code.)

With the tools in hand, the steps involved can seem confusing, but if you follow the attached presentation, I think not too difficult.  In brief:

  1. You start with individual voter records that include the name, age, party, date that the absentee ballot was requested, date that the absentee ballot was returned, and the status of the absentee ballot.  (We’re want to know if the ballot was “accepted” or not.)  The data file is freely downloadable at ftp://www.app.sboe.state.nc.us/enrs/absentee11xx06xx2012.zip

    The file looks something like this

    VOTER CODE   JOHN SMITH  123 MAIN ST  RALEIGH NC …  DEM … 10/1/2012   10/15/2012  BY MAIL  ACCEPT

  2. You need to convert the date variables, which look to statistical programs like a string of characters (e.g. 10/10/2012) to a “date” variable.
  3. We count up how many partisan requests there were for absentee ballots.
  4. You need to code the ballot as accepted (voted = 1) or not (voted =0).
  5. Now things get tricky.  We “collapse” the data so that our smaller data file is organized by date and by party.  The file will end up looking like this:

    DATE               DEMS      REPS     UNA      DEMVOTED  REPVOTED  UNAVOTED
    10/15/2012     10,219      9221      8217       123                   .                        .
    10/15/2012     10,219      9221      8217       .                        347                   .
    10/15/2012     10,219      9221      8217       .                        .                        456

    This made up file shows that on Oct. 15, 123 Democratic ballots were returned, 347 Republican ballots, and 456 Unaffiliated ballots.

  6. With this file in hand, we “cumulate” the number of returned ballots, divide by the number in each party, and voila!  We have the percentage of partisan ballots returned by day.

Obviously, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I hope this powerpoint presentation (PDF format) that I prepared for my class can guide anyone through the process.  The Stata do file referenced in the Power Point can be downloaded as well.

One third of ballots already cast in Nevada

And early voting there looks to shatter past records.  

Elections and Natural Disasters

I fielded inquiries about early voting and Hurricane Sandy, as did my colleague Doug Chapin and my friends at the NCSL.

Short summary:  every year throughout the last dozen years, one or two states have looked at emergency provisions for elections, and at least half have done something during that period.  The most recent states, for instance, are DE and SD.

Pundits are already speculating about political advantages and disadvantages.  That’s unfortunate, but it takes some real cluelessness for former Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (FL) to make this statement:

This year is different than five, 10 or 20 years ago when there was only one day to vote and the availability of much more restrictive absentee ballot rules in place.  Now there are several days of early voting and an easier process to get an absentee ballot.  Voters no longer have to wait till election day and really have no excuse not to get it accomplished.  America will be very disappointed if the President tries to extend voting beyond Nov 6 to increase his chances of re-election.

Hello?  It’s a bit late to request a no-excuse absentee ballot when your power is out and streets are flooded!

There’s a much larger issue, however: the lack of emergency preparedness on the part of government officials.

I can’t help but recall the stillborn report from The Continuity of Government Commission which tried to fix serious deficiencies in the American system of succession. In that case, the requirement for elections in the case of mass vacancies or incapacitation could result in a non-functioning legislative branch for months.

No one seems to have contemplated what would happen if a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Sandy were to hit just one week later than it did this year.

That’s lack of disaster planning on an epic scale.

The Early Voting Transformation The Early Voting Transformation

A number of reporters have asked me how early voting may have changed campaigns.  I describe a longer period of voter mobilization.  I describe  get out the early vote rallies, such as Obama is holding in Illinois this week.  And I talk about how Election Day has been changed from a day where half or more of the citizenry go to a local school, community building, or government office to cast a ballot to the end of a two or three week period of balloting.

But sometimes a picture tells a thousand words, and I think the graphic below, comparing early voting rates in North Carolina in 2004, 2008, and for the first five of early voting in 2012, says it all.

If you were campaigning in the Tarheel State in 2004, elections were all about the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  A few days before the 2004 election, about 15% of Democrats and Republicans had voted early.  A week out, less than 10% of ballots were cast.  These voters mattered, of course, especially in a close contest, but campaigns kept their resources in check to focus on the 85% of partisans who cast an Election Day ballot.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s candidacy was the trumpet of Joshua that felled the Election Day wall.  Anyone familiar with the 2008 race cannot forget the long lines of Black voters waiting in the Fall heat to cast a historic vote for the candidate who would eventually be elected as our first African American president.

But it wasn’t just Obama.  Usage among Republican and Unaffiliated voters also leapt in response to the key legislative change: making absentee voting a “one-stop” process, essentially converting it into early in-person voting.  The result was that 2.6 million out of 4.4 million ballots were cast early and, at least for Democrats, half of those came in 7 or more days before Election Day.

Fast forward to 2012.  Once again, voters are enduring long early voting lines.  Democratic rates in particular are exceeding 2008 rates.  Republicans are lagging, but still are turning out earlier than in 2008.  And any candidate who wants to win the state has to be already on the ground, because if they aren’t, their opponent could be 30-40% ahead by election day.

Image courtesy of the Winston Salem Journal