I. In Focus This Week
Election management in the U.S. is improving
An updated Elections Performance Index from the MIT Election Data & Science Lab evaluates the 2016 election
States’ administration of elections overall improved by 6 percentage points between 2012 and 2016, according to the Elections Performance Index (EPI) released today by the MIT Election Data & Science Lab.
As many readers will know, the index, which was developed and managed by The Pew Charitable Trusts before being transferred to MEDSL in 2017, provides a nonpartisan, objective measure of how well each state is faring in managing national elections. When it launched in 2013, it provided the first comprehensive assessment of election administration in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.; it now includes data from every federal U.S. election since 2008. It’s calculated using 17 indicators that cover the broad scope of issues involved in managing elections, providing specific metrics for election officials, voters, and policymakers to compare their state with its own past performance, as well as the performance of other states.
“The index is an important foundation for the ongoing discussions on election management,” said Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and MIT Election Lab’s founding director. “The new release of the index helps remind us that election administration is a multi-dimensional challenge. Significant improvements in the 2016 index also illustrate that when election officials commit themselves to a path of improvement, good things can happen.”
Overall, almost all states improved their index scores between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, with 22 states improving at a rate greater than the national average. Overall, Vermont showed the most significant improvement from 2012, landing at the top of the index for the first time after expanding the availability of online tools, providing online voter registration, and requiring a postelection audit.
The District of Columbia, West Virginia, and South Carolina also saw significant gains in their scores and rankings. Only six states saw their scores decline from 2012, partly due to an increase in the residual vote rate.
Trends in 2016
A trend that made a positive impact on the index scores of many states in 2016 was the increasing online capacity of state and local election offices, including an increase in the availability of online lookup tools for voting information. These tools make important election information easy to find, and take a significant time burden away from election staff. In 2016, every state and DC had at least one of these tools, whether it was meant to allow voters to check the location of their polling place, their registration status, track the status of their absentee or provisional ballot, or simply look up specific ballot information.
The hefty jump in rank made by states like Vermont—which catapulted to the top of the index in 2016—was in many cases partly due to the states’ development and release of these tools. Likewise, online voter registration played a role in these shifting ranks. In 2008, only Arizona and Washington State offered voters the ability to register to vote entirely online. By 2016, that number had grown to 33 states and DC, with four additional states offering voters the chance to update their existing registration online.
The decline in average wait times at the polls also played a role in improving the average index score in 2016. The effort that state and local officials put into addressing polling place wait times after 2012 paid off, and is reflected in the significant drop in this measure for many of the states that performed worst in 2012. Florida had the longest average wait to vote in 2012, at 45 minutes, but dropped to just 5.5 minutes in 2016. D.C., which in 2012 was second-from-the-bottom, saw 2016 wait times drop from 33.9 to 16.3 minutes. Overall, 7 states had average wait times of more than 20 minutes in 2012. In 2016, that number dropped to zero.
(In the interest of cross-promotion, we should note that MIT, along with the Bipartisan Policy Center, has had a major program to work with election officials to record line lengths and reduce wait times. A report on this effort, entitled “Improving the Voter Experience,” was released in April.)
As noted above, one indicator that stood out in the 2016 update was the residual vote rate, which calculates the number of under- and over-votes cast in an election (as a percentage of voter turnout) to evaluate the performance of voting machines. The 2000 election still holds the record for highest residual vote rate in the last two decades; the nationwide rate in that election was 1.9 percent, with state highs of up to 3.9 percent. In 2016, however, the rate spiked back up to 1.39 percent, after dropping to 0.99 percent in 2012.
Research has shown that the jump is likely due to an increase in voters abstaining from casting a vote in the contentious presidential race, rather than a decline in the performance of voting machines. Interestingly, Nevada, which provides voters with the ballot option “none of these candidates,” saw a historical low in the residual vote rate in 2016.
In store for 2018’s EPI: Time for renewal
As the staff of the MIT Election Lab look ahead to the next federal election, now less than three months away, they’re already planning out their approach for the 2018 EPI. Nearly ten years after the first EPI advisory committee was convened, the Lab will reconvene many of them—plus a few new faces—to revisit the current indicators and discuss whether any might need to be altered or retired.
At the same time, they’ll face the challenge of evaluating new potential measurements and data sources, and identifying whether they have a place in a redesigned index. Cybersecurity, for example, has been a hot topic in discussions on U.S. election administration, but has proved difficult to include on the EPI because of the dearth of a high-quality measure for it.
All told, the EPI exists to illustrate to the public the many factors that go into running elections, and how changes to election policy can lead to change in election performance. The current nationwide concern with cybersecurity hasn’t changed the fact that election management is a complex web of prosaic processes that determine whether voters can cast ballots conveniently and securely. It will be this understanding of elections that guides the development of the EPI through the 2018 election and beyond.
(The MIT Election Data & Science Lab supports advances in election science by collecting, analyzing, and sharing core data and findings. We aim to build relationships with election officials and others to help apply new scientific research to the practice of democracy in the United States. The MIT Election Data & Science Lab is a grantee of The Democracy Fund.)
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