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Thoughts on the June 3 Election

Californians (at least a very small number of us) went to the polls yesterday (well, most of us mailed back our ballots and didn’t actually go to the polls). Here are some thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

  • Turnout was really, really, really low–even for a boring election like this one. Right now it looks like turnout among registered voters (who we think are likely to vote because they bothered to register) will be a mere 18.5%. In 2010 and 2006, registered turnout was 33%. This is voter participation looks like in an election where the most compelling statewide race is the Secretary of State contest and there are no big, sexy ballot initiatives to draw people’s attention.
  • At least locally, this election looks to be as close to an all-mail election as we’ve seen in a long time. Last week, over 42,000 mail ballots had been returned to the Registrar’s office. As of this morning, the Registrar reports that just over 50,000 people voted in San Joaquin County. Even assuming that no more mail ballots were submitted (problematic), that means that about 85% of the ballots cast were cast through the mail.
  • Unless I have missed something, there will be no minor party candidates on this fall’s ballot. There will be a handful of No Party Preference candidates, but no minor party candidates were among the top two vote getters in any partisan contest.
  • In 2012, the Democrats blew a great opportunity to pick up the 31st congressional district. The district tilts slightly Democratic in its presidential/gubernatorial voting and in its voter registration, but no Democrat appeared on the November ballot in 2012 because the Democrats could not coordinate and settle on a single candidate. They almost did it again this year. Pete Aguilar, the top vote getter among the four (!) Democrats in the district, received just 390 more votes than the second-place Republican, Lesli Gooch. Aguilar should win against Paul Chabot in November, though.
  • Locally, the state and national contests were largely cake-walks for the incumbents. Jerry McNerney (D, CA-9) received more than 50% of the vote. Jeff Denham (R, CA-10) got more than 57% of the vote. The Assembly and State Senate members all coasted as well (though not all with as large a vote margin).
  • Also, remember, no matter what they say in the media, yesterday’s election was not a primary.

Vote by Mail and Election Results

An emerging theme from the 2012 elections is the impact of vote by mail (VBM) and other convenience voting reforms, such as provisional ballots, on the speed with which we know the results. John Wildermouth, for example, argued yesterday that the prevalence of n0-fault, permanent VBM and early voting in California means that it’s taking longer than it should to know who won on November 6. He writes:

It’s taking longer and longer to get a final count of a statewide election and the problem only is going to get worse.

The growing number of vote-by-mail ballots turned in at the polls, combined with more and more provisional ballots that need to be hand-checked, means that election night is becoming election week. Or election month.

The relationship between the use of VBM and other convenience voting reforms and the speed with which we know the results of an election is an interesting question, but it is one that we do not have a lot of data on at this point.

As the following graph shows, voters in California’s counties vary in their use of VBM. The graph shows the percentage of voters casting their ballot through the mail in the June 2012 election. I did a quick and dirty analysis exploiting this variation to see if there is a relationship between the prevalence of VBM in a county and whether or not we know its results by now. If greater VBM usage leads to less certainty about the election outcomes, then counties at the top of the chart should be done with their counts while counties at the bottom should still be counting. The analysis calls into question this emerging theme.

There are two dependent variables for the analysis: First, has a county sent in its county canvass complete (CCC) numbers to the state, thereby signaling it has counted all its ballots? Second, and conversely, has a county still just reported its final election night update (FENU)? The data for county reporting status come from here. Since these are binary outcomes (yes or no), logistic regression is appropriate here.

I use three independent variables in each model: (1) The percentage of VBM ballots in a county in the June 2012 election, (2) the total number of registered voters in a county, and (3) the total number of ballots cast in the county. I use the prevalence of VBM in a county from the June election as the numbers are not yet available for the November election. VBM usage is generally higher in the June election, however, so it should give us a good idea of how many people were likely to use VBM.

The results (shown in Table 1) are suggestive of a relationship but not encouraging for the VBM causes delay hypothesis. The coefficient for the percentage of voters using VBM in the CCC status model is -0.052 with a z of -0.97 (p=0.334). While the estimated effect is negative, meaning that the greater the percentage of VBM ballots the less likely it is a county will have moved to CCC status, given the z-score we cannot conclude that the results is due to anything other than random chance. The coefficient for the percent VBM in the FENU model is 0.023 with a z of 0.89 (p=0.373). Again, the estimated effect is in the right direction–greater VBM usage leads to a higher likelihood of a county still being in FENU status–but the z-score is too small to let us conclude the relationship is real. Substantively the signs are in the right direction, but statistically we can’t say there is a relationship on the basis of these results.

Caveats: (1) The data are for this year only. There may a change due to VBM over time. (2) The data are for California only. There may be differences due to VBM across states. (3) The data are only to date. There may be differences due to VBM that emerge once all of the counties have reported their final counts.

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