More thoughts on the changes in Ohio

I like the story but I don’t like the metaphor used in this week’s Electionline.

Mindy Moretti writes:

Like alcohol during prohibition, it turns out that many Ohio voters actually liked many of the elections procedures recently banned by the state legislature.

The point is well-taken; the Ohio Legislature eliminated times and places for voting that we taken advantage of by 234,000 citizens in Franklin County alone.  Like the changes being made in a number of other states, including Florida, Texas, and Georgia, legislators argue that these changes will save money. The fiscal impact note accompanying the bill, however, provides only slim evidence:

This provision shortens the amount of time for in-person absentee voting, which could reduce some costs for county boards of elections for operating these absent voter locations.

The bill also banned clerks from mailing absentee ballot applications to all registered voters and paying for return postage, which will obviously save money on mailing:

The bill prohibits a board of elections from mailing any unsolicited applications for absent voters’ ballots, and instead specifies that a board only mail an absent voter’s ballot application to a voter who has requested  one.  Additionally,  the bill prohibits  a board of elections that mails an absent voter’s ballot application from prepaying the return postage for that application or for the absent voter’s ballot.   Instead, under the bill the voter is responsible for paying the postage costs.  This change will result in some reduction in mailing expenses, although not all counties pay for the postage for absent voter’s ballots or applications. Franklin County does pay these costs, and typically sends unsolicited absent voters’ applications to individuals that have historically opted to vote by absent voter’s ballot. During the 2010 general election, the county spent approximately $115,000 for mailing approximately 160,000 absent voter’s ballots for the 2010 general election.

But wait – will this save money for the state or just for the citizens of Franklin County?  And if it’s the citizens of Franklin County, why is the state legislature poking their nose into the county’s fiscal affairs?  And it’s not even clear if this will really save money on conducting elections (not just on mailing ballots).  After all, many of those vote-by-mail ballots are going to be cast in person at an early voting location or at the polling place on Election Day.

I was interviewed for the Ohio story and had a mixed response to the changes.  I don’t regret shortening the period for early voting; I am convinced that most early voters will adapt, and those voters who cast ballots four weeks out will happily cast ballots two weeks out.  I am much more concerned, however, about banning satellite early voting, which Bob Stein and others have shown increases turnout and hold no security risks.

But back to Mindy: while I agree with the tenor of the story, is this really like “alcohol during prohibition”?  After all, it’s not like we expect to see election speak easies pop up in Franklin County where Al Capone gladly takes your early ballot, for a small fee of course!

Whatever our metaphor, the lesson is clear: if you give voters more options, some will choose those options.  And they’ll choose them because they like them.  If you then take those options away, some voters will be unhappy.  It’s a choice that clerks face every election.  It’s one thing, however, for a writer to take creative license; its another thing to pass legislation.

What’s often lacking legislative debates over elections is careful, systematic analysis of the costs and benefits of the changes. Instead, legislators rely on anecdotes and ill-chosen metaphors, and clerks end up trying to manage the unintended consequences.

VBM turnout effects in Marin County, CA?

A surprisingly balanced editorial in the Marin, CA Independent Journal lauds a vote by mail for encouraging turnout in a local school bond election. Turnout was 56%, 11% higher than the last local election held in 2009.

However, the rest of the story notes that Marin has one of the highest turnout rates in most elections, and that the campaign for this election was very well-financed, including multiple calls to registered voters encouraging them to return the by-mail ballot.   The editorial ends by once again attributing all the turnout increase to the administrative change (including a completely invalid comparison to turnout in LA County), nonetheless, overall it’s a pretty nuanced account.

Will the “end of cursive” impact voting by mail?

Under newly proposed national standards, cursive writing will no longer being taught. Few under the age of 18 write in cursive any more, and it’s likely that we’ll have a growing proportion of the population that either types or uses block printing.

What does this mean for the signature, the main method of verifying vote by mail ballots, and which rely on unique patterns in handwriting?  Do these patterns hold up if individuals use block printing? I don’t know, but I’d love to hear from any election officials who have thought about this problem.

Stories on the end of cursive in the NY Times and Washington Post.

Electronic delivery of voting materials: Is there an app for that?

Rick Hasen blogged on a recent study out of the Pew Center on the States which examined cost savings related to and voter attitudes about electronic delivery of election information. (Click here for the Ventura County Star story.)

My first reaction was “great” but my second reaction was “wait, is there an app for that?” I am a big fan of email delivery of long paper documents which have short term utility, like mutual fund reports, shareholder statements, even some journal articles!  But I am increasingly accessing these materials through an iPad or other mobile device. I wonder if any local jurisdictions or states are thinking ahead of the curve, and contemplating not just electronic delivery via email, but electronic notification of new content that can be accessed via an RSS feed or dedicated “Elections App.” For an increasing number of users, that’s a much more flexible way to get to information, rather than using an email interface.

Georgia improves its early voting system

A colleague sent along this story out of Georgia with the commentary “It appears they (gasp) took your advice.”

I’d like to take credit for influencing this legislation, and I may have done so indirectly through my past work with Georgia election officials and scholars at University of Georgia, but I think the credit lies with Secretary Kemp and other administrators in the Peach State.

I do applaud the changes they’ve implemented.  The early voting period has been shortened to 21 days (I generally recommend 10-14); Secretary Kemp notes that 80% of early voters cast their ballots during that period.   It standardizes the early voting period, an important change in my opinion because it reduces any possibility of inequities in access to the ballot based on a county’s wealth, geographic size, or population. Finally, it allows for weekend early voting, a potential inconvenience for officials to be sure, but one which citizens will find very helpful.

Full story at The Weekly.

Mobile voting and seniors in long term care facilities: study out in new Election Law Journal

As co-editor of the Election Law Journal, I am pleased to this press release on media newswire:

Mobile Polling Breaks down Barriers to Voting for Seniors in Long Term Care Facilities, Penn Study Shows

CORRECTION: DC Elections head says vote centers will save $1,000,000 over VBM, $200,000 over precinct place

It’s good to have friends who are forgiving of end of the day blogging.

Alysoun McLaughlin of the DC Board politely pointed out that I confused the cost figures deportees in Mike DeBonis’s story. The $200,000 is the estimated savings compared to traditional polling places. VBM is estimated to cost $1,000,000 more. That’s a lot of money for a special election!

The reason the costs are so disparate is that the DC rolls have a lot of deadwood and need to be cleaned up. The Oregon response might be: can you run a VBM contest as a way of cleaning the rolls? Nonetheless, my apologies to Rokey and the DC board for the misposting.

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Rokey Suleman provided a menu of options to the DC City Council for the April 26 special election.

The costs varied from a high of $1.6 million for a full VBM, to $824,000 for a full precinct place election to $620,000 for one using two vote centers per ward.  (More after the split)

I presume that the reason the estimated cost of full vote by mail is so high–contrary to some previous estimates–is that they print and send a ballot to every single registered voter, even though turnout is probably quite low in a special city council election (previous specials had turnout of 7-15%).

Estimating costs is complicated business.  While I have not asked him, I am assuming that Suleman projected some level of turnout in a precinct place and vote center election in order to make his calculations.  

Let’s suppose that he assumed 15%.  The problem is that DC may also need to consider the “costs” of lowered turnout as a result of using traditional voting methods.

Past examples show that sending ballots to every registered voter can result in substantial increases in turnout in low profile, low interest contests.  Turnout in the 2010 Colorado Senate primary, conducted fully by mail, was double the previous most comparable election.  When Helena, MT began to conduct local elections by mail in 2007, turnout was 66%, double the 30 year average of 33% for off-year municipal contests.

I wonder what a precinct place or vote center election would cost if, for example, we estimated DC turnout at 30%?  Would it be worth $1,000,000 to increase turnout to 30%?  That may be one of the questions the DC council should ask.

Collin County, TX Commissioners look for solutions to early voting woes

Commissioners in Collin County, TX heard complaints about long lines and lack of parking for early voting.  

The commissioners suggested that lack of publicity about vote centers was a problem, but some of the ideas they mentioned (vote centers located in centralized, easily accessible locations, managing choke points during voter check in) have actually been addressed, and solved, by many other jurisdictions (Larimer County, CO; Harris County, TX).

One more example where counties need to learn from their counterparts, both locally and nationally.

No-excuse absentee ballots, voter ID, and slow counts in Arizona

A story in today’s Arizona Daily Star was brought to my attention today by some colleagues.  The money quote is here:

Of the 1.7 million ballots cast, nearly 300,000 were early ballots that weren’t early after all, but folks dropping them off in unprecedented numbers at their polling places, which then triggered a new round of verification to make sure the ballots were authentic. There were another 84,000 provisional ballots that had some problems with registration or identification.

These strike me as really big numbers: 17% of ALL ballots in AZ were no-excuse ballots that dropped off at a precinct place on election day?

More than half of Arizonans cast early ballots, so this translates into at least 35% of no-excuse ballots dropped off at a precinct place on election day, a number that is a low estimate since it divides the no-excuse ballots by ALL early votes, including early in person (the SoS website does not discriminate between the two modes).

These would be shockingly high figures, if they were right. In comparison, Los Angeles County reported to me that 14.9% of all no-excuse absentee ballots cast in 2008 were dropped off at a precinct place on election day, and those ballots constituted 3.6% of the total ballots cast. As I have reported in the past, 15%-30% of ballots in Oregon are hand-delivered (or arrive through the mail) at county offices or a library drop box on election day, but these are not local precinct polling places.

A bit of detective work has revealed that the story cannot possibly be accurate, unless there has been a massive population shift in Arizona and Maricopa no longer constitutes more than half the state.

According to Maricopa, they sent out 866,440 no-excuse ballots and the return rate was 77% (approximately 667,000 returned). Of the 665,065, 117129 were returned to a polling place on election day, or 17.6%, a figure similar to what Los Angeles County experiences.

That leaves less than 400,000 additional early votes cast in the state, according to the SoS office.  It just doesn’t seem realistic that over half of those were no-excuse ballots returned on election day.

Why does this matter? It does for two reasons.

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Republicans have the early voting advantage in Florida

Florida 2008 PPP, Early In-PersonFlorida 2010 General, Early In-Person Votes

Comparisons between rates of early voting in different election cycles are fraught with peril – in general, it’s important to compare this year to past midterm elections. That said, looking at the 2010 and 2008 numbers in Florida reveals a pretty impressive showing for Republicans.

Democratic voters are far below their 2008 turnout rate, which is precisely what we’d expect for a midterm election. The Republican rate, however, is not far off that of the 2008 presidential election!

These are just early in-person data*, but this makes the strong Republican turnout even more remarkable: Typically, Democrats take advantage of early in-person voting at much higher rates.

*Absentee-by-mail returns, which account for around 50% of Florida’s early voting, are restricted to political parties.