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Data IS Beautiful (cont.): "Four Questions to Ask Election Officials"

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[Image courtesy of resprofsp]

As an election geek, I always find the run-up to Election Day - especially in presidential years - to be somewhat of a mixed blessing. It's exciting to see people sharing my interest in the details of election administration - but it's also frustrating to see how often that interest is politicized, poorly-informed or just plain wrong. Consequently, I increasingly find myself cringing in anticipation whenever I click a link to a new article or study that comes across my screen.

Fortunately, there is still good stuff out there - evidenced by a recent piece in Nieman Reports (sponsored by The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard) entitled Fair to Voters? Four Questions to Ask Election Officials".

The piece profiles a new movie and book - both entitled Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters - that look at the current state of elections. The book's author, Victoria Bassetti, recently spoke to Nieman about how local journalists can dig into the details of the election process in their communities:

[T]here are lots of important questions citizens and journalists should be asking in their communities. One question that's surprisingly easy to answer is: How good is your local election board at making sure every vote is actually counted?

"There are four pieces of data--four metrics--that every local reporter should ask their local election board about and should ride them on because the data could illuminate really extensive problems with voting in your precinct, city, or state," [says Bassetti] ...

"They can show you when votes aren't being counted, when voters are being unnecessarily turned away, or when ballots are designed in a way that confuses voters," she said.

Imagine my surprise - and relief - when the four questions actually turned out to be evidence-based inquiries into election administration, many of which I've discussed here on the blog before. They're provided below with short notes from me after each:


1. What's the residual vote rate?

The residual vote rate [ ] represents the percentage of intended votes that were not counted for one reason or another. That rate is typically somewhere around 1 percent, although it can vary considerably between states and elections. And it shouldn't be hard to obtain; some states mandate it. Every election board should be tracking it ... a high residual vote rate "is clear evidence that something is wrong and people need to find out what's wrong, because people's votes are being lost," Bassetti said.

[She had me at "residual".]

2. Did you find any recount discrepancies?

After the final results are in, election administrators typically conduct an audit of a randomly selected 5 or 10 percent of precincts, recounting the votes to see if the numbers add up, Bassetti said. "It's like a blood test." ... [i]f there are serious discrepancies, that's another sign of problems.

[A little problem with terminology here; she's really talking about post-election audits AND overstates how prevalent they are - but still, it's a good point.]

3. How many provisional ballots were used? And how many counted?

"If you've got a high number of provisional ballots, something has gone terribly wrong with getting information out to voters about where to appear, what they need to have to vote," said Bassetti. "Or it means that you've got pollworkers who are being jackasses."

Then again, a low number of provisional ballots could mean that the pollworkers aren't even letting voters fill them out.

Further inquiry is indicated, but the number is a starting point, nonetheless.

Knowing how many of the provisional ballots were ultimately counted is also important. If a high percentage of them are being counted, it tells you the provisional ballot "is actually working--it's doing what it's supposed to do, which is salvage the vote," Bassetti said.

[I agree that data on provisional ballots are important, but part company a little on the interpretation. As I wrote back in April, "what we should really be focusing on is reducing the number of provisional ballots cast - and more importantly, ensuring that very few of the (hopefully) very few provisional ballots cast are counted - because those voters were never eligible in the first place." We can't have that discussion, though, without the data so count me in.]

4. What's your voter registration rejection rate?

As many states approach the deadline for voter registration before the November election, election boards will be flooded with registration forms.

Many will be rejected, for legitimate reasons such as that they were clearly bogus (think "Mickey Mouse"). But election officials should report on how many were accepted, how many were rejected, and for what reasons.

Bassetti said election board officials should be asked not just what their rejection rate was, and what their basis for those rejections was, but also what they did about it? Did they send rejected people a notice? Did they offer those people a chance to fix the problem?

For comparative purposes, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has some baseline, state-level data on registration and provisional ballots.

There are lots of reasons--some legitimate, some not--that a vote can get lost ... But you won't know to ask why if you don't even know there's a problem.

[Totally agree; the EAC data has some quality issues but the nature of the inquiry is solid - especially the effort to diagnose failed registrations with the same zeal we examine lost votes.]

This really is a remarkably valuable piece - while I don't agree 100% with its interpretations of certain data, Bassetti is steering journalists and other observers in just the right direction.

My faith is restored - at least until my next click :)

3 Comments


  • This part infuriated me:

    ""If you've got a high number of provisional ballots, something has gone terribly wrong with getting information out to voters about where to appear, what they need to have to vote," said Bassetti. "Or it means that you've got pollworkers who are being jackasses.""

    To imply that voters not updating their registration is the fault of election officials or worse yet "pollworkers who are being jackasses" completely invalidates the entire article in my opinion and, quite frankly, since you are touting this peice as an example of a good article, it lessens my opinion of your blog.

  • I think you're misreading the voter-centric part of her argument ... what she's saying (I think) is that if voters are given bad or incomplete information about where to vote or what to bring, it can hurt them at the polls - which is a failure of voter education by election officials, not a failure by voters. In other words, voters shouldn't be forced to cast provisional ballots when giving them good information in the first place would allow them to cast regular ballots.

    I'll admit I wrestled with the "jackass" comment, but decided to leave it in because it was consistent with her voice and an important point to be made: when pollworkers can't, don't or won't do their jobs properly (like the one who misdirected Ohio voters because of a belief that house number 798 was on the odd side of the street) the resulting provisional ballot is an avoidable error that you want to be able to identify and resolve in the aftermath.

    Hope that helps; fury isn't good for you.

  • Data definitely ARE beautiful, as is correct grammatical usage.

    If officials are skeptical of the merit of the residual vote rate, one source that illustrates its merits is the "Residual Voting in Florida" report coauthored by me and Charles Stewart. Look in particular at pg. 55-56, which I humbly suggest is a perfect illustration of Doug's point.

    Using data from Florida, we identify the two highest residual vote rate precincts in the state--two precincts that are wholly contained within elder care facilities. We further show that the rate in the two precincts is completely driven by high error rates on absentee ballots.

    We can't diagnose the disease in full. It may be that elderly citizens are making more errors because they can't ask for help from poll workers when completing the ballot. It may be that the text is printed too small, causing difficulties for citizens with vision impairment. Or perhaps the ballot itself is confusing in unexpected ways.

    But at least now we know where to look.

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