I. In Focus This Week
Exploring the Census’ Voting & Registration Supplement
Consistent, reliable, and publicly available election data can be hard to come by. That’s why it’s important to highlight data sources that break the mold and inform the way we conduct elections.
A noteworthy data source is the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS). Both the availability of the data and its longevity make it an invaluable resource for journalists, academics, and the public who wish to study a wide variety of economic and public policy issues.
The CPS provides rich demographic data on issues ranging from unemployment to school enrollment statistics. However, one feature of the CPS that is especially relevant to studying election administration and policy is its Voting and Registration Supplement (VRS).
The VRS is now a multi-decade study about the participation of citizens in elections, conducted immediately following each biennial federal election. Since 1964, Americans have been asked questions like how they register, what modes they use to vote (by mail or in person), and why non-voters fail to participate. In short, the VRS has a wealth of information that helps us understand some basic facts about voting and the problems potential voters encounter when they go to the polls or register.
The Census Bureau recently released the VRS data from the 2010 midterm election. While it appears there will not be a written report, the data are available now for those who wish to catch a glimpse at what the electorate looked like in 2010, and at the barriers faced by some who were unable to vote.
In one interesting highlight, the latest data shows voters continuing their long-term trend toward favoring non-precinct place voting alternatives. In 2010, 18.2 percent of respondents reported they voted absentee or by mail, 8.4 percent voted early in-person, and 73.4 percent voted on Election Day. This compares with the last midterm election in 2006, when 13.8 percent reported voting by mail, 5.8 percent early, and 80.4 percent on Election Day.
Because of the large sample size of the VRS (56,000 households, which yielded 44,802 individuals who stated they voted in 2010) and the nationwide scope of the study, it is possible to break down the data at the state level and ascertain where the fastest changes are occurring in where voters vote.
When we do that, we see that growth in the use of the mail to return ballots, compared to 2006, exceeded 10 percentage points in six states, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, Washington, Arizona, and Ohio; in-person early voting grew by more than 10 percentage points in North Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico, and Georgia.
In addition to midterm elections, we can also assess claims made across consecutive election cycles. While recent political developments (Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2010) have focused attention on the racial composition of the electorate, the VRS gives us the best access to data to track these trends over time.
Using estimates derived from the VRS, we see that the racial composition of the electorate in 2010 was similar to that of 2008 — 77.5 percent non-Hispanic white in 2010, compared to 76.3 percent in 2008; 11.4 percent African American compared to 12.1 percent; and 6.9 percent Hispanic compared to 7.4 percent.
There are cautions to the use of the VRS data, however; most notably, it is based on a survey, and respondents to surveys tend to over-report voting. Interestingly enough, however, recent research by the Census Bureau shows that the VRS over-reports turnout in some states and under-reports it in others. This means that on the whole, the VRS turnout estimates appear to be less prone to over-reporting bias than other large national surveys that explore voting. In addition, there is a margin-of-error with all the estimates produced by the VRS. The regular written reports on the VRS data have discussions of standard errors in the use of the estimates.
Finally, the raw data are available through the Census Bureau’s DataFerrett service. For those comfortable downloading government datasets, DataFerrett is capable of extracting the dozens of variables associated with the VRS study and exporting it in a variety of formats that are compatible with spreadsheet and statistical software. It is also possible to use DataFerrett to produce simple tables of frequencies and relationships.
The implications of data like the VRS and interactive government tools like DataFerret are clear: whether you’re an academic, election official, or simply an engaged citizen, the data for assessing elections can be right at your fingertips.
II. Election News This Week
- The Virginia Board of Elections will issue a letter of censure to the Montgomery County Electoral Board and voter Registrar Randy Wertz for violations that occurred in last November’s election. The state board decided on the action after receiving a report from Senior Assistant Attorney General Joshua Lief, who conducted an investigation of mistakes that led to a handful of Montgomery voters casting ballots at the wrong precinct on Election Day. According to the Roanoke News, Lief recommended the censure letter. “It is clear that a violation of election law occurred in the county on Nov. 2, 2010,” Lief said in his report to the three-member board. “It is also clear that it was not an attempt to corrupt the election, alter the results or allow non-registered voters to vote.” Lief said the circumstances of the violations did not warrant criminal prosecution by the attorney general’s office. The three members of the state board discussed whether a letter of censure was too severe before opting to follow Lief’s recommendation
- At press time, the Florida Senate was expected to vote on sweeping election reform legislation that would limit the number early voting days, makes it more difficult for citizen groups to register voters and forces most voters to cast a provisional ballot if they have to change their registration address on Election Day. Democrats and advocates have blasted the legislation as an effort to suppress voters. According to the Herald Tribune, Senate Democrats spent more than an hour on Wednesday fighting the bill, prolonging the debate as they tried to attach 13 different amendments that would have nullified much of the legislation. All of the amendments were easily defeated by Republicans, who moved the bill into position for a final vote Thursday. The Senate is expected to pass the bill and send it to the House, where the Republican leadership has agreed to pass the Senate's version.
- The Indiana Recount Commission said that it will announce its decision on the fate of Secretary of State Charlie White by June 30. A hearing on the case has been scheduled for June 21, and the commission will issue its findings within the week. The commission also told White's office to give the attorney general's office a report that former Secretary of State Todd Rokita compiled about White's voter registration. Democrats have wanted to see the report for months and could get their hands on it after the commission reviews it and determines whether it's relevant to their complaint.
- Personnel News: Marvin McFadyen began work this week as the new New Hanover County (N.C.) director of elections. Previously McFadyen served as the deputy director for the Pitt County board of elections and as a project manager for Microvote. After interviewing dozens of applicants and narrowing the final pool down to six, the Rutherford County (Tenn.) election commission voted 3-2 this week to hire Nicole Lester as the new elections administrator. David F. Ferrucci and Christopher Powell were both recently appointed to the Gloucester County (N.J.) board of elections. After 21 years on the job, Barbara Thomas is stepping down as the director of the Saratoga County (N.Y.) League of Women Voters.
- Voter ID Update: In a 99-52 vote, the Missouri House approved legislation that would require voters to show a photo ID and establish requirements for early voting. The Senate passed a similar bill in February and now the two chambers must reconcile the legislation. The New Hampshire legislatures approved voter ID legislation this week by a 243-111 vote. The legislation will now return to the Senate for review of changes made by the House. The Oklahoma Supreme Court failed to intervene in a Tulsa County lawsuit that is challenging the states new voter-approved voter ID law. A Rhode Island Senate committee approved photo ID legislation which would go into full effect in 2014. A Wisconsin Assembly committee approved photo ID legislation this week in a 5-3 party-line vote after about four hours of debate. The legislation now goes before the full Assembly.
III. Research and Report Summaries
Security Best Practices for the Electronic Transmission of Election Materials for UOCAVA Voters and Information System Security Best Practices for UOCAVA-Supporting Systems - National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), April 2011: These two draft documents focus on security best practices for UOCAVA voting. They are available for public comment until May 15, 2011.
Do Politicians Racially Discriminate Against Constituents? A Field Experiment on State Legislators - Daniel M. Butler and David E. Broockman, Yale University Institution for Social and Policy Studies, 2011: This study investigates whether race affects how responsive state legislators are to requests for help with registering to vote and finds that putatively black requests receive fewer replies. Additional analysis finds that white legislators from both political parties demonstrate similar levels of discrimination against the black alias. Minority legislators do the opposite, responding more frequently to the black alias.
California: Online voter registration
District of Columbia: Printed voters’ guides
Guam: Voting methods
Louisiana: Voting rights
Missouri: Voter ID
North Dakota: Voter ID
Texas: Election administrator
V. Job Openings