Gronke predicts early vote at 33%; McDonald says 28%

Michael McDonald has published his pre-election forecast of early vote at 28% of the total vote.

This strikes me as far too low; early voting constituted 15% in 2000, 20% in 2002, 22% in 2004, 25% in 2006, and 33% in 2008. It strikes me as very unlikely that the percent of ballots cast early would decline so substantially from 2008, even with the noted enthusiasm gap among Democrats.

I’ll similarly stick out my neck and project the percent of early ballots at 33%, the same as in 2008.

I think I see where Michael is getting his estimate – he shows approximately 18 million early ballots thus far (although there are some noticeable gaps in state reporting, and we don’t have the hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots in CA that will be dropped off today), and is comparing that to his overall turnout estimate of 40 million.

Michael and I differ on two points.  First, he still reports on his webpage the early voting totals in 2008 as 30%, relying on the CPS. I think the much more reliable AP numbers peg the percent of early vote as 32.6%  Second, I think he is projecting a decline in percent voting early, as witnessed from 2004 to 2006.  I suspect to see less of a drop, as a few more states adopted relaxed early voting laws, and as many more Americans got used to voting early in 2008.

Unfortunately, Michael and I were never able to settle this bet in 2008 because of the lack of reliable data on early votes. Hopefully, he can buy my that bottle of whiskey in 2010!   

Oregon ballot returns: signs of Republican enthusiasm?

The turnout numbers for Oregon, with four more days to go, are in, and it looks like Republican and Unaffiliated voters are returning their ballots at a higher clip than Democrats.

The two graphics below compare the turnout in 2006, with a line demarcating the Friday before Election Day, with the ballots processed thus far in 2010. Democrats are running 4,000 above 2006, small enough to be accounted for by population changes. 22,000 more GOP ballots have been returned than at this same point in 2006, and nearly 14,000 more Unaffiliated ballots have come back. The result is a partisan return advantage of only 18% in 2010, compared to a 25% gap at this same point in 2006. I’ve been hearing talk of major GOTV efforts occurring this weekend in many Democratically leaning areas of the state, and this explains why.

WA Senate Race: Be ready for a slow count

I have been communicating with friends and colleagues in Washington about how quickly ballots arrive and are counted in the state.   The figures are fascinating, and if it is true that the Washington race may end up being crucial in determining control of the Senate, then the national media has better be prepared to wait for results.

Past history has been that 10% of WA voters return their vote by mail ballots immediately upon receipt. 30-40% of the ballots are returned by the Friday before the election (as of today, 38% of the ballots have been processed), and by Monday, approximately 50% of ballots will have been cast.

The remaining 50% come in Tuesday through Friday. And because Washington is a big military state, UOCAVA ballots arrive for weeks.

The 8pm returns from Washington will be meaningless.  Firm conclusions about the Washington Senate race will not be possible until Wednesday or Thursday at the earliest.  And it’s quite possible that we’ll have to wait the full 21 days until Washington certifies its results.

Absentee voter information “only” $3000 in North Dakota

Check out this story out of Fargo, ND:

Interesting points to notice:

  1. The state charges $3000 for what must involve pushing a button to generate a report. I wonder if they realize that less well-funded campaigns may not be able to shoulder that cost or that other states make this information available for a very low (or zero) cost.
  2. Check out the poll. 93% at current count say “don’t sell my information”! Of course, most of us in this field have long experienced citizen reactions (almost all negative) when they are told that turnout information is a public record.

Hat tip to electionline.org.

Politico’s Molly Ball and The Times’s Nate Silver once again misinterpret early voting statistics

I would have expected breathless overinterpretation of numbers from Politico, but I’m disappointed to see Nate Silver follow suit. Once again, this shows that a little statistics and not much contextual knowledge can really send an analyst the wrong way.

The context is what, on other grounds, is a nice story by Molly Ball, comparing the partisan breakdown of early voting returns in a number of states. The problem is what Ball does with the numbers – and her error is compounded by Silver.

In both cases, they compare early voting turnout (note: more than one week before election day – more on that later) to the overall registration figures in the state (Ball, Silver) and the party ID breakdown in the state (Silver). This is then used as evidence of an enthusiasm gap.

You’d think they’d have learned. A week ago, I chided Michael McDonald for pointing to “tantalizing” early voting numbers that showed just the opposite: no enthusiasm “gap” at all. At the time, I noted that interpreting early voting numbers in a small number of states, and based on a small percentage of the eventual voters, was fraught with peril.

Now the national media have gotten in on the game. A few important things to note about early voting turnout numbers at this stage in the game:

1) There are two ways to cast an early ballot: by mail (no-excuse absentee); and in person. The problem is that Ball and Silver lump the two together, even though we have long known that GOP voters tend (for reasons not well understood) to cast far more of their early votes by mail.

2) Among the states for which Ball is able to get data, virtually all are states where most early votes are no-excuse absentee votes (CA, CO, IA, LA, NJ, NV, OR, PA).

3) If history is any guide well under 50% of the “early” votes will be cast at this point, and in many cases we have examined in the past, less than 1/4 of the early ballots will be cast one week before the election.

In short, both Ball and Silver have “discovered” that Republicans mail in absentee ballots. Congratulations! Talk to me again next Friday and Saturday, when early in-person balloting has really opened, and we have more than 10% of the ballots cast.

The Ohio “experiment” and no-excuse absentee voting patterns

I have been tracking early vote returns with the team at the Early Voting Information Center. A recent exchange with Matt Damschroder, the deputy director of the Board of Elections in Franklin County, OH, unearthed a fascinating administrative experiment underway in Ohio.

Damschroder, and his counterpart in Cuyahoga County, OH, have implemented some procedures to make it easier for their registered voters to return their ballots. Both counties:

  • Send no-excuse absentee applications to all voters on the NVRA list
  • Paid for postage for registered voters to return their voted absentee ballot
  • Cuyahoga only also is paying postage for registered voters to mail in their absentee ballot application.

Given this administrative innovation, it should be possible to examine the responsiveness of citizens to administrative outreach with respect to no-excuse absentee voting. The patterns are fascinating: self-identified partisans are dramatically more responsive to these outreach efforts.

Partisan Responsiveness to “Push” No Excuse Absentee Balloting
Democrat Republicans Unaffiliated Minor Parties
Active Registered 83629 77833 478752 2367
Requests Returned 38124 37373 76539 669
Responsiveness 45.6% 48.0% 15.9% 28.3%

What does this all mean? It seems to me that there is a potential unintended consequence of this administrative change – it could result in a more partisan electorate in off-year races.

We already know from previous work that no-excuse absentee ballots increase turnout, especially in low profile contests (this effect is most pronounced for permanent no-excuse absentee voting). The only remaining administrative barriers to casting a no-excuse absentee ballot are a) actually filling out the paperwork (or online form) to request no-excuse status and b) finding the stamps to mail back the request and the ballot.

Franklin and Cuyahoga have reduced the barriers just about as low as they can go. What we won’t know until the election is over is whether they unintentionally increased turnout among partisans because these citizens are most responsive to a “push” no-excuse absentee system, or whether these changes simply resort the voters (putting more partisans into the no-excuse pile and more non-affiliated into the election day pile). And, of course, we won’t know how this may propagate into other contests until the NEXT election, not something election officials want to think about right now!

Ballot return patterns in Franklin County, OH

Michael McDonald has been tracking no-excuse ballot returns in a number of states. I have been able to obtain the partisan ballot return rates in Franklin County, OH. These results, while very early in the voting process, confirm some of the patterns Michael has found in Iowa. They also mirror a pattern in Cuyahoga County, OH – unaffiliated voters are returning ballots at a significantly lower rate. I don’t know if this pattern appears in Iowa (Michael?) but it does reflect our prior expectations about unaffiliated voters.

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Absentee ballot return patterns in Cuyahoga County, OH

I’ve created a quick spreadsheet from the early voting turnout results posted at Cuyahoga County, OH (hat tip to Michael McDonald).

To date, there are differences between D’s and R’s, but a noticeably lower return rate among non-affiliated voters, when ballot returns are calculated as a percentage of ballots requested.

Overall, 29.19% of absentee ballots requested have been returned; 30.98% among registered Democrats, 31.67% among registered Republicans, and 20.81% among non affiliated voters. The spreadsheet is attached to this post; it was created Thursday, October 14 at 4pm PT.

The likely voter model in Washington and Oregon

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.

It’s too early to conclude anything about early voting

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.