A delay in counting the “deluge” of mail in ballots in last Tuesday’s California primary has sparked calls for County Clerk Barbara Dunmore’s resignation. Delays in counting ballots in California has been recognized for a long time. One of the main causes is that California allows citizens to drop off their absentee ballots “in person” on election day at any local precinct. Administratively, this means that, at the end of the day, all of these ballots need to be transported to the central counting location, validated, opened, and processed.
CA is also a voter-intent state, which only further slows the processing of vote by mail ballots, where citizens are more prone to make stray marks and errors that are not flagged by optical scanning readers.
I can’t imagine how this could be done in any large county by the next morning, as some state legislators apparently want. There is a clear tension between a speedy final count and a very generous, vote anywhere and in any way system like currently exists in many California counties.
Full story here.
This story out of Passaic County is not another story about absentee ballots and vote fraud. But it is a cautionary tale about how important ballot handling procedures can be when new voting systems are implemented.
The basic summary is this: a county clerk found 49 uncounted mail in ballots while “handling” the ballots after the election. Even though the envelopes had been time-stamped indicating that they had arrived on time, the clerk chose not to count them because the election results had already been announced. A judge overturned this decision, and once counted, a different winner was declared.
What I found most curious, and disturbing, about the story is this quote:
Ken Hirrman, an office administrator with the Passaic County Board of Elections, said he discovered the 49 ballots Tuesday while handling the mail-in ballots.
Hirmann said he noticed the uncounted ballots because they were enclosed in thicker envelopes, indicating that they had not been opened and counted.
I have witnessed a lot of vote by mail and absentee balloting systems and have interviewed dozens of election officials about their administrative procedures. I can’t imagine putting in place a system whereby the situation above could possibly occur. This means that the ballot, still inside the secrecy sleeve, and then still inside the stamped envelope, somehow made it through the slicing process, the signature verification process, the separation of the outside envelope from the inner ballot process, and finally the tallying process, and no one noticed that there were still intact envelopes in the batch?
New Jersey has only recently gone to no-excuse absentee and permanent absentee. I hope they have also paid attention to some of the long established ballot handling procedures put in place in CA, OR, WA, IA, and many other states.
There have been accusations of absentee vote fraud in Lincoln County, WV, when 75% of absentee ballots that were requested were returned, and 90% of those favored one group of candidates.
The response of county officials is not encouraging:
“Our office encouraged every voter to participate in the democratic process, whether it be early voting at the courthouse, at local voting precincts or absentee voting,” Scraggs read from the statement. “An increase in any of the options is an encouraging sign that the democratic process is alive and well.
“Therefore, who would think that having more people vote is a bad thing?” Scraggs read.
This is a wonderful example of how election forensics can detect likely election fraud. While the technology is complicated (see Walter Mebane’s papers and Alvarez, Hall, and Hyde’s book), the intuition behind the statistics is simple.
In short, 75% absentee ballot return is not “high” or “low” unless you compare it to some standard. The problem is that it’s impossible to discover absentee ballot return rates from the state’s website. Since overall turnout was juist 42.99% in 2008, however, that 75% return rate does seem high (keep in mind that absentee voters have actively requested a ballot, already indicating their preference for voting).
As to the totals for one faction vs. the other, the county elections website shows no vote totals at all for 2008! This makes judging the 2010 results a bit sketchy.
Data = transparency!
Oregon has been entirely vote-by-mail for nearly 10 years (even longer for non-federal elections). Voters can return their ballots in the mail, or they can drop them at elections offices and special ballot drop boxes located around the state. Over at Election Updates, EVIC’s Paul Gronke postulated that the particularly high number of late ballot returns in this election—36% in the last two days—could have been the cause of delayed counting in Oregon (particularly Multnomah County).
Ballot return trends over the past decade, however, don’t appear to support this theory. We know from past experience that many voters hold on to their ballots until election day; they have done so since the inception of vote-by-mail. The graph on the left shows the raw numbers of ballots returned in the last two days (this includes election day). The right graph shows the same as a percentage of total ballot returns. Clearly, the sheer volume of returns is not unprecedented—every general election, bar 2004, has had a high rate of late returns. I’ll see if I can track down some Multnomah-specific data to see if the county differed from the statewide pattern.
The media have widely reported the changes to the traditional early voting demographics. As many outlets have correctly pointed out, the surge in African-American and Democratic voters has been quite pronounced. However, I’ve noticed that some in the media are also talking about high rates of early voting among young people. I saw a news report a few nights ago in which the reporter proudly announced a surge of young voters in Florida. Hmm. I’m not sure the data support this assertion.
Take a look at the following early in-person graphs. The ‘ballots cast’ graph (left) shows fairly familiar patterns: a normal (“bell-shaped”) distribution, peaking in the mid-fifties. This is in line with our expectations. (Though African-American early voters appear to be a little younger: the mean (average) age of white voters was 55, while the mean for blacks was 10 years lower, at 45.)
But this isn’t the whole story. There are many more 50-year-old registered voters than 18-year-old. It’s worth asking how young voters are turning out in proportion to their group size. The proportional graph (right) shows the percentage of ballots cast by registered voters in each age-race category. For example, look at the 18-year-old columns. These tell you that approximately 34% of registered, African-American 18-year-olds, and 14% of registered, white 18-year-olds, cast their ballots early in-person.
The two proportional curves indicate similar age distributions of each group’s early voters. African-Americans trend a little younger (in both peak and shape), but the broad patterns are the same. And, certainly, neither indicates a groundswell of young turnout.By the way, this similarity also explains the apparent discrepancy in the average ages of black and white early voters. It is largely a discrepancy in the ages of black and white registered voters. In Florida—the retirement state—registered African-American voters are younger, on average, than registered white voters.
Excepting the small spikes at the youngest end—and these age groups are numerically quite small—there appears to be little reason to conclude that young voters are turning out in high numbers. Unlike some other demographic groups, young people do not appear to be confounding conventional wisdom. Indeed, the most interesting thing about these graphs is that they, again, highlight the high African-American turnout overall.
I’ve included the proportional partisan graphs too, and the story is much the same.
A few points to note; remember my Florida caveats. First, the registration data are slightly outdated (we obtained our files in the Summer). Since then, registration has climbed precipitously, with reports of many new young voters joining the rolls. So, we are likely to have overstated—but not understated—proportional turnout for some categories (and especially at the young end).
Second, these are only early in-person breakdowns. (In Florida, only registered political parties have access to absentee-by-mail data during the election period.) Absentee-by-mail voters, especially in this state, are more likely to be older (and whiter, and more Republican, etc), so this too is unlikely to affect the conclusion that young voters aren’t turning out in noteworthy numbers.
Where’s the promised youth excitement? It will be interesting to compare these trends to those on Election Day.
I have been receiving literally dozens of emails every day. I am sorry that I cannot answer all of these questions individually, but the most common and most important one is this:
YES. Your early votes ARE counted.
It is not true that early votes are only counted if an election is close. The final, certified results include all ballots.
I think that North Carolina and Georgia are the fascinating early voting stories of this election. Both are swing states (somewhat unexpectedly); both have large minority populations which are bucking past trends; and both have exhibited astronomical levels of early turnout.
North Carolina has reached the end of its “onestop” in-person voting period. We still don’t have the returns for today (expected to be high, with extended opening hours at many locations), and there are undoubtedly many absentee ballots currently in the mail system. All the same, early turnout has (at least) doubled from the last presidential election, to 2.35 million ballots cast
As of late Friday evening, the early turnout from this election was 66% of the total turnout from 2004. Again, we have the daily and cumulative ballot returns. On the right-hand graph, the 2004 partisan early voting totals are indicated by dashed lines.
It’s important to account for the different levels of party registration in the state (the Democrats have significantly more registered voters), so I’ve also generated a graph (left, below) that shows ballot returns as a percentage of each party’s registered voters. The Democrats still hold a commanding lead in turnout. On the right, all this information combined into one: ballot returns as a percentage of registered voters, for both 2004 and 2008. In 2004, the Democrats and Republicans were incredibly close by this metric.
The partisan differences in Florida’s early in-person returns are still pretty clear. Democrats have now reached the 1,000,000 mark; Republicans have returned just 600,000 in-person ballots.
The breakdown between early in-person and mailed absentee ballots is now about 60-40, and though Republicans make up the bulk of mail voters, they still lag in the overall early vote—a reversal of the situation in 2004. The combined early vote now surpasses the same 2004 figure by 500,000.
Again, we have both raw numbers on the left, and ballots cast as a percentage of each party’s active, registered voters on the right. We still have no absentee-by-mail breakdown, unfortunately.
A quick update from Maine, where absentee ballot levels are roughly equal to those of 2004. The graph on the left shows the number of ballots returned by party affiliation, and indicates a Democratic trend.
Democrats have the edge in voter registration in the state, however, so the graph on the right shows the same data as a percentage of each party’s active registered voters. This evens things out a little—around 23% of registered Democrats have voted, compared to 18% of Republicans. The low percentage of unaffiliated voters (12%) is interesting, but broadly in line with past experience: early voters tend to be more committed partisans.
Updated 10/31, 11:55pm for typo
The partisan distribution of Colorado’s early voters has been much more equal than in other states. Democrats hold a narrow advantage (though they also have slightly more active, registered voters). There are also a substantial number of unaffiliated voters in this swing state though. The only thing we can really be sure of is that early voting turnout has blown through 2004 levels (see the graph on the right).
Note: the scales above are in thousands, of course!
Mail-in balloting remains the most popular form of early voting in Colorado—for both parties—and the Secretary of State’s office reports that of the 1.6 million mail ballots they sent out, only 1 million have so far been returned. I expect these numbers to continue to rise over the last few days.