A neat use of technology in absentee balloting is going live in Maryland. Beginning with the upcoming gubernatorial primary in September, voters will be able to print the appropriate absentee ballot directly from their own computers.

From the article:

Those who created the program argue that these voters cannot vote in person, may not know what address they will be at on election day, and until now have had to wait for the postal system to deliver their absentee ballot, which can pose problems for overseas voters. By getting their ballot from the Internet, voters no longer have to worry where their ballot should be mailed to or how long it will take to arrive.

Political scientist Chuck Bullock notes that a longer, early voting period in Georgia did not result in an increase in turnout (full story is in the Moultrie Observer).

Chuck’s quote:

It seems logical if you extend the voting time you increase voting,” he said. “It turns out it doesn’t work that way. The early research suggested it did bump up participation. All the later research discounts that. More convenience and increasing the time didn’t increase the vote.”

A story in The Plain Dealer notes that voting errors increase as the use of vote by mail increases. 

What’s interesting about this story is that it focuses on a basic mechanical “mistake,” meaning that voters failed to include a proper form of identification or did not use the secrecy envelope.  The much more common error results from voters mis-marking the ballot (over and undervotes).  Residual vote studies have long shown higher rates of voter errors whenever a central count system is used, where voters are not given real-time feedback on the accuracy of their use of the ballot.

Apologies for being a little late on this one, but it is worth linking. As New York begins to move from older voting technology (lever machines) to modern optical-scan machines, NYU’s Brennan Center is drawing attention to a potential programming problem:

Under the new system voters will fill out a paper ballot and then “scan” them into an electronic machine. The State and City Boards have set up the new machines so that they do not give voters adequate warning of “overvotes”– ballots that cannot be read in full because the machine reads the ballot as having too many votes for a particular contest. Instead of returning the ballot, as is done in many other jurisdictions, in New York the ballot will be retained, and a computer screen with present the voter with a confusing message that includes a green “cast” button. Voters are not told that if they press the green button, their vote will not count.

What’s striking about this problem is that it is easily avoidable. Election jurisdictions are able to control whether the machine “warns” voters, or not. It’s an question of programming, not a technological limitation. Indeed, the Center notes:

The only other time these voting machines have been used in the same way in a major election (13 counties in Florida in 2008), they produced overvote rates almost 14 times higher than expected, with thousands of votes for the presidential contest rejected – in comparison to almost no votes rejected in the 36 counties that automatically returned the ballots.

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.

Paul Gronke, Director of EVIC, was quoted in the New York Times today on the potential problems with a top-two primary system in California.

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!

From Stateline, Kat Zambon has a piece noting the efforts by some local election officials to help voters cast their ballots through innovation and new technology.

She focuses particularly on developments in early voting:

Some 32 states now allow people to vote early, and 29 allow people to vote absentee for any reason — so called “no excuse” laws that are tailored exclusively to voters’ convenience. Iowa is making it possible for absentee voters to track their ballots like a FedEx package. And in Oregon, which also has a primary election today, all ballots now are cast through the mail. (Today is merely the day that ballots mailed in over the past few weeks are to be counted.)

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has proposed a set of draft regulations that would encourage widespread development of internet voting capabilities for the first time. Responding to requirement of the MOVE Act (2009), the EAC aims to reduce the number of UOCAVA voters whose ballots go uncounted due to “distance and unreliable mail service.” From the NYT:

Nearly three million overseas and military voters from at least 33 states will be permitted to cast ballots over the Internet in November using e-mail or fax, in part because of new regulations proposed last month by the federal agency that oversees voting.

The move comes as state and federal election officials are trying to find faster ways to handle the ballots of these voters, which often go uncounted in elections because of distance and unreliable mail service.