Reporters FAQ 2: How Absentee Ballots are Processed, Scanned, and Tabulated

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I just got off of a series of phone calls with reporters who are asking about absentee ballots and how they are treated by elections officials.

While the administrative rules and procedures vary by state (as with almost everything in American elections), there are some consistent patterns that reporters need to understand.

  1. Processing:
    Absentee ballots go through a number of steps before they are fed into a counting machine.  The signature on the external envelope needs to be verified.  This is done either with a computer or with a human, and there are always backups when signatures are deemed questionable.  The ballot is then separated from the external envelope–this is done to maintain the secrecy of the ballot (except in North Carolina where, at least in the past, it was possible to relink the two via a security code).A few states are “voter intent” states (California, Oregon, Washington, perhaps others), and in these states, the ballots are then examined and “remade” by ballot review boards.   In other states (e.g. Arkansas) this process does not take place unless an absentee ballot is rejected by the ballot counting machine.
  2. Scanning:
    Ballots are then typically scanned using an optical character recognition machine.  This information is stored on a memory card.
  3. Tabulating:
    Finally, at some point, an elections official hits the “tabulate” button that provides the candidate totals for the absentee ballots which have been scanned into the machine.  There is not, of course, a big Staples type “total” button–what this practically means is that the machine creates a report that contains a number of pieces of information, such as total ballots counted, total ballots accepted, total votes for each candidate in each race, and, depending on the report, candidate totals by precinct.
    (Here is an example of one such report from Bay County, FL from the November 2011 election.)

It’s important to understand these distinctions, because many journalists don’t realize that “scanning” is not the same as “tabulating.”   Continue reading

Reuters/Ipsos American Mosaic and the Early Vote

I came across “The American Mosaic” data exploration tool that draws on tracking poll data from Reuters/IPSOS.

This is a really well-implemented tool, and I encourage everyone to look at it.

I’m not quite sure what to conclude from the early voting numbers, plotted here and available by clicking this link (bloggers who want to grab a permalink from this site–click on the “share” button and you can grab the URL).

On the one hand, they show a pretty consistent 15 point advantage in the Obama vote among those respondents who say they have cast an early vote.

I looked more closely at the data, and they show 36.9% of the respondent pool thus far say they are Democrats versus 31.7% Republican.  That is 3% above (Dem) / below (GOP) Gallup’s current estimate of party affiliation among likely voters.  

What makes this hard to evaluate is that the states which currently have sent out absentee ballots are not a random subset of the nation as a whole.  Nonetheless, in another week or so, these figures might start to give us a real sense of how the early vote is shaping up.

A standard line in my opening lecture to new students of political science is some variant of this:

Studying politics can be exciting and can be frustrating because political actors are also strategic actors.  They make the rules, the break the rules, and then they rewrite the rules.  While you may be able to generalize about political actors, it’s very hard to generalize about political outcomes.

This lesson applies to this year’s coverage of early voting.  Both campaigns have learned lessons from past elections.  Both campaigns have been monitoring legal changes in the states.  And both campaigns are spending millions of dollars trying to mobilize the early vote by whatever means necessary.

Image courtesy of

Early voting is a moving target, and shooting at the bullseye in 2008 is almost surely going to miss the target in 2012.

Coverage a week ago was trumpeting a Democratic absentee advantage in Iowa. Today’s story in Politico?  “GOP Gains Ground in Iowa Early Voting.”

If you line these and other stories up, it’s clear that the Obama campaign focused a lot of effort on recruiting more Democrats to apply for and cast absentee ballots in Iowa.  Result: an early Democratic surge in absentee votes.  Reaction: Romney campaign has redoubled their mobilization efforts in response.

As I posted a few days ago, the same thing appears to be happening in Florida.  Given the uncertainty over the early in-person voting period, the Obama campaign redirected resources to encourage Democratic-leaning voters to request and cast absentee ballots.  Result?  An “advantage” for the Democrats in absentee ballots!

This is why I’ve been resisting making broad conclusions about what these early early voting numbers mean.  Not every commentator has been so circumspect.  This might make for a nice story that will be forgotten a week later (see: Iowa) but it doesn’t make for informed political commentary.

Swing States or Swing Nation?

Image courtesy of the NY Times

There is a really cool graphic in today’s 538 blog at the NY TImes that is making its way around the internet.  The graphic is creative and awfully pretty, but the focus on individual states as independent entities, “swinging” in response to individual presidential candidacies, is almost certainly wrong.

As Jim Stimson showed a decade ago in Tides of Consent, and Ben Page and Bob Shapiro (find me in the acknowledgements!) showed two decades ago in The Rational Public, the nation as a whole has swung in fairly consistent patterns between liberal and conservative policy positions.

Image courtesy of the Policy Mood project at UNC

What’s revealing to me in the Times figure is which states maintain a position consistently in the middle of the distribution, the consistent swing states, but also those states that move most in response to individual candidacies.

The ability to mouse over and view a state’s trajectory is very instructive.  I can imagine every state politics instructor today is showing this to his students.

But let’s not overstate the independent movement of individual states, as the authors do at the start:

The latest FiveThirtyEight forecast shows many states shifting to the right. Florida, North Carolina and Indiana are more likely than not to shift back to Republicans.

The nation as a whole is shifting slightly back to Romney.  We only pay attention to Florida, North Carolina, and Indiana because they are on the cusp.

I don’t want to suggest that there are not unique, idiosyncratic policy issues and ideological responses tied to a states history or political culture, but what I see primarily in the graphic is a reflection of policy mood, not states swinging back and forth on individual trajectories.

Somehow I missed the publication of this article by Melanie Springer, “State Electoral Institutions and Voter Turnout In Presidential Elections, 1920–2000” in State Politics and Policy Quarterly (gated).

The abstract:

Expansive and restrictive state electoral institutions have been instrumental in structuring the vote throughout American history. Studies focused on a small number of reforms, years, or states lack the scope necessary to comprehensively evaluate the effects of institutional change over time. This work, however, places recent reforms in historical context and offers a long-term perspective. Using an original data set, it identifies the institutions that have generated the most substantial effects on state turnout rates during presidential elections from 1920 to 2000. Findings demonstrate that restrictive laws (those aiming to limit the vote or make voting more costly) produced large and consistently negative effects in the Southern and non-Southern states alike, but the effects associated with expansive reforms (those making participation more convenient or less costly) vary. Although a few expansive laws have increased turnout in the non-Southern states, they have had no effect in the Southern states where turnout rates are lowest.

My Voter File Moment at Vanderbilt

My day in Nashville has been wonderful–thanks again to John Geer and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions for hosting me.

My lecture had one lowlight and one highlight.  I wonder if the highlight is shared by my good friends in the elections community such as Doug Chapin, Charles Stewart, Dan Smith, and others.

The lowlight is easy: I never realized that this was a course on elections, not introductory American politics!  When I answered in response to a question that the demographic profile of the early voter mirrored many of the biases in American politics that they have “read about in the interest groups chapter”–even using the  “what accent the heavenly chorus” quote from Schattschneider–I wonder if the students knew what class they were in.

To Geer’s credit, he told me afterward that the students will probably be panicked, and maybe that’s a good thing! Continue reading