Election Data and Science Lab Launches at MIT

Writing Tools

A new enterprise dedicated to researching and improving elections based on scientific principles launched recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The MIT Election Data and Science Lab will generate, advance, and disseminate scientific knowledge in an effort to develop a comprehensive evidence base about the conduct of elections in order to improve their performance.

Founded by Charles Stewart III, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, the Lab will address multiple audiences of academic researchers, election practitioners, and the general public.  It will serve a unique and independent role as it applies scientific principles to empirical questions about the administration of American elections.

“My hope for this Lab is that it will serve as an international, non-partisan resource for housing the expertise and evidence necessary to inform improvements of elections,” said Professor Stewart. “In the midst of a policy area that has become hyper-politicized, we hope to provide a counterbalance of hard evidence and analytical thinking.   And, we look forward to bringing together communities in the election administration debate who often talk past each other, by offering an evidence-rich focal point of discussion.“

Major funding to launch the Lab comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation through its Madison Initiative. “Our primary focus at the Madison Initiative is on improving Congress’ ability to deliberate, negotiate and compromise in ways that more Americans support,” said Jean Bordewich, program officer for the Madison Initiative. “At a fundamental level, the conduct of elections affects the experience of voters and people’s trust in American democracy.  It’s imperative that we, as a nation, get this right and we believe that this Lab, under Professor Stewart’s leadership, can move us in the right direction.”

The work of MEDSL builds on more than a decade’s worth of work by Professor Stewart to promote the nonpartisan analysis of how election processes work, how they affect voters, and how they can be improved.  Some of this work has been through the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology project, which will now be supported at MIT by the Lab.  Other lab research anticipated in the near future includes assessing the overall performance of election administration in 2016, analyzing factors that reduce lines at polling places, and studying the confidence of voters in the election process.

One of MEDSL‘s first projects, “State Election Landscapes,” will entail the collection and dissemination of data on election administration in Midwestern states, thanks to support from The Joyce Foundation. This collaborative project will be managed by MIT and includes scholars from Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin.

This project will initially entail data gathering by researchers on campuses in Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin followed up with dissemination, through publication of the enhanced data on an interactive website, release of state-specific reports that describe the electoral landscapes of the six Great Lakes states, and the holding of three public symposia that use these reports as a spur to discuss the future of elections in Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  This project will serve as a model for future work in a larger collection of states.

“We commend Professor Stewart and MIT on the launch of the Election Data and Science Lab,” said Beth Swanson, Vice President of Strategy and Programs at the Joyce Foundation. “Joyce supports efforts to ensure that the election administration process is fair and accessible for all voters, and the work of this new lab will generate the data necessary to make that possible.”

For more information on the Lab’s activities, please visit electionlab.mit.edu.

Ohio Rep. Violated Ohio Constitution by Serving Dual Public Offices


Ohio 50th District State Rep. Christina Hagan (R-Alliance) has belatedly resigned as a member of the presidential Electoral College. The Electoral College was slated to meet at noon on Dec. 19, in the state capitol in Columbus.

Hagan was facing a complaint and motion for a temporary restraining order before Judge John Haas of Canton, showing that Hagan, by serving as both a member of Ohio’s General Assembly and presidential elector, was violating Article II, Section 4 of the Ohio Constitution. Her vote would have been illegal.

Lead counsel for Plaintiffs Deborah L. Cain and Andrew J. DiLiddo, Hagan’s constituents, said, “This is a victory for Ohioans who believe in integrity in

government. Rep. Hagan should have never put herself in this position, and may well have vacated her office under the Ohio Revised Code for having done so. It’s not surprising that Donald Trump and his campaign would have abetted such unconstitutional behavior, and the behavior is consistent with Rep. Hagan’s prior disregard for the U.S. Constitution.

Watchdog Group: Despite Trump’s Claims, No Evidence of Voter Fraud

voting booth

Editor’s Note: With a flurry of news related to voter fraud, we wanted to share these resources from watchdog group the Brennan Center.

President-elect Donald Trump claimed on Twitter Sunday that millions of people voted illegally and “serious voter fraud” occurred in three states. His comments follow news that Wisconsin will conduct a recount, initiated amid concerns that voting system infrastructure in the state wasn’t secure.

Much has been reported by the nonpartisan nonprofit about the issue of voter fraud. Here are some resources to consider if you’re concerned alleged voter fraud:

  • Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth. There is no basis to the claims of pervasive voter fraud. Every major investigation, study, and court decision has found little evidence of fraud. Instead, these claims lead to significant disenfranchisement since they are used to falsely justify restrictive laws that block legitimate voters from having their voice heard at the polls.
  • Voting Machines and Recount Procedures: There is a legal process that allows recounts to happen if elections are exceptionally close, or if a party or candidate pays for them. There is little evidence to suggest anything will be found in Wisconsin to change the results of the election, but a recount can illuminate small problems we can work to avoid next time. One thing that was clear even before the recount was initiated is America’s voting machines and election administration infrastructure is old, which increases the risk of crashes and failures. A comprehensive Brennan Center study in 2015 examined America’s voting machines and found 42 states use ones that are at least 10 years old.

Click here for more on the Brennan Center’s voting rights and elections work.

Over 2 Million Political Ads Aired This Cycle, up 9% over 2012

university’s website.An estimated $1.56 billion has been spent so far in the 2015-2016 election cycle on political advertising (Table 1), according to a new analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project. That money has purchased just over 2 million ad airings on local broadcast television since January 1, 2015, which is an increase of 9 percent over the 1.87 million total airings at this point in 2012.

About a third of that total ($517 million) was spent on nearly 610,000 ad airings in the presidential race, while spending on campaigns for U.S. Senate came to $247 million for over 280,000 airings. Spending on races for governor and U.S. House lag behind, clocking in at a little over $80 million apiece. Just over $34 million has been spent on ballot measures so far.

Table 1: Ad Spending and Airings

Est. Cost 
(in Millions)
Figures are from January 1, 2015 to August 18, 2016. Numbers include broadcast television
(national network and national cable are included in presidential totals).
CITE SOURCE OF DATA AS: Kantar Media/CMAG with analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.
President 517 609,893
Governor 86 233,566
US House 83 143,423
US Senate 247 280,416
Federal and Governor Total 934 1,267,298
Ballot Measures 34 58,904
Mayor 0.05 153
Attorney General 3 6,836
State Senate 27 58,994
Lt. Governor 2 4,510
Judicial 21 50,026
State Rep. 12 23,310
Other 45 109,055
Grand Total 1,560 2,032,307


Despite an overall increase in ad airings in 2016, advertising activity in federal races is down from 2012 levels (1.27 million in 2016 compared to 1.39 million in 2012). As shown in Table 2, presidential airings in 2016 are down by 14 percent compared to 2012 cycle-to-date as are U.S. House airings. 2016 senatorial airings are down 32 percent compared to 2014 races, but up by nearly 12 percent over 2010 in which the same seats were being contested six years ago. Gubernatorial airings, in stark contrast, are considerably higher in 2016 than they were in 2012 (233,500 versus 167,000 four year earlier), an increase of 40 percent.

More information and charts are available at the university’s website.

Brennan Center: Trump Says Election Will Be “Rigged” — Facts Say Otherwise


When it comes to the possibility of a “rigged” election, the Brennan Center wants to set the record straight.

Earlier this month, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said the election would be “rigged,” citing a string of court decisions blocking or loosening restrictive voting laws. His campaign also said there will be “massive fraud” this November.

But the watchdog group says studies show otherwise.

In fact: You are more likely to be struck by lightning than commit in-person voter impersonation, the analysis found. Other research confirms our findings. A comprehensive analysis from The Washington Post found 31 credible instances of voter fraud between 2000 and 2014 — out of 1 billion ballots cast. An Arizona State University study showed similar results.

“When courts across the country step up to protect voting rights, that hardly amounts to ‘rigging’ an election,” said Brennan Center President Michael Waldman, author of The Fight to Vote, a history of the struggle over voting in America. “The notion of massive fraud is a pernicious myth. It’s irresponsible to peddle it if the goal is to pre-undermine an election outcome. Mark Twain said, ‘A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.’ And that was before Twitter.”

In recent weeks, courts have struck down or rolled back voting restrictions in five states — Kansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin. Judges looked at the evidence in those cases and found little evidence of fraud. Instead, courts ruled, the states passed restrictive laws with surgical precision to exclude certain voters, including minorities, students, and the elderly.

Overall, 15 states will have new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a high-turnout presidential election this year, according to an updated Brennan Center analysis.

Election Protection Releases New Report Providing Review of Voting Rights Problems During 2016 Primary Election Season

Writing Tools

This week, Election Protection, the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), released, “The 2016 Primaries In-Review” – a  report that presents a broad review of the 2016 primary season and an overview of the problems voters faced across the United States electoral system, particularly in states formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The report shares several voter profiles and gives detailed accounts of their primary election experiences.

“The barriers faced by voters this primary election season makes clear that, 51 years later, we continue to need the important protections provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

She continued:

“Throughout the primary election season, Election Protection’s 866-OUR-VOTE hotline received more than 22,000 calls and complaints from voters across the country, many of whom faced barriers at the polls. Election Protection will remain active between now and November to ensure that all voters are able to participate in our democracy.”

The report highlights voting problems and litigation updates in ten states, as well as the personal stories of voters from Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. Voters like Rhondalynn T. of Georgia, who encouraged voters to stay in line with her when election workers told them to leave the polling place, shares her story in the report.

Likewise, 2016 Election Protection volunteer, Reverend Roger H. of North Carolina, shares the joy he felt when he helped a 93-year-old woman cast a ballot. In addition to these and other voter stories, the report includes Election Protection’s broad recommendations for working toward better electoral processes for voters and election officials.

With less than 100 days before the November 8 Election Day, the report urges Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act, following the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County, Alabama v, Holder which gutted the Act. The report also encourages officials to develop and implement election administration plans to ensure smooth elections, just as voters must make plans to vote.

“The stories extracted from the thousands of calls to 866-OUR-VOTE illustrate the American voter’s strong will to cast a ballot that counts and highlight the problems that characterize this nation’s electoral process,” said Jennifer L. Patin, writer and editor for the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers’ Committee and author of the report. “The voters who agreed to share their stories help to humanize the voter experience and illustrate Election Protection’s effectiveness during election seasons.”

This report is part of Election Protection’s ongoing series of publications and interactive tools about Election 2016.

News of Note: Convention Delegates Win Settlement in Lawsuit Against Federal Election Commission


Two delegates to the Republican National Convention has settled a lawsuit against the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Two Unnamed Plaintiffs v. FEC. These delegates were represented by attorneys from the Pillar of Law Institute, which was also a plaintiff in the case. The delegates and Pillar brought suit in Wyoming federal court due to a ban against giving any assistance to delegates by corporations, even non-profits.

“Our win ensures that convention delegates will have access to similar sources of funding as party operatives. It also allows non-profits to donate free legal services and educational materials to delegates,” said Benjamin Barr, lead counsel in the case. “Our settlement goes further than that, recognizing that corporate non-profits may provide delegates with travel stipends and other financial assistance, breaking new ground in federal campaign finance law.”

The case arose in May out of concerns that Donald Trump, then the presumptive Republican nominee, would utilize unconstitutional legal tactics such as defamation lawsuits to suppress or punish convention delegates who supported delegate autonomy. If the law prohibited Pillar’s free legal representation of these delegates, campaign finance complaints could have been filed as well.

“Although the 2016 Republican convention is over, Donald Trump’s legal tactics may still boil over,” said Steve Klein, co-counsel in the case. “His recent threat against the real author of The Art of the Deal shows Trump will do just about anything to silence people who disagree with him. Thanks to our lawsuit, we know definitively that federal campaign finance law will not prevent constitutional legal groups like Pillar from defending delegates if they have to fight petty tyranny.”

As the Democratic Convention begins today in Philadelphia, delegate autonomy—the principle that convention delegates cannot be bound to vote for a specific candidate—may yet again prove newsworthy, along with the importance of this recent decision.

“Just as Trump goes out of his way to threaten his opponents, the DNC and Hillary Clinton might submit to the same temptations,” said Barr. “With this win, conscientious delegates now and for conventions to come are not alone. Non-profit corporations are free to help fund their efforts and donate legal services, breathing new life into the convention process.”

Numbers Crunched: Presidential Primary Voter Turnout at 29 Percent

Writing Tools

The nonpartisan advocacy group FairVote has compiled and analyzed state-by-state data on voter turnout for the 2016 presidential primaries.

FairVote reviews trends in voter turnout nationally since 2000, as well as differences in turnout by party.

The analysis includes a deeper examination of the 23 states that held competitive primaries in both 2008 and 2016, exploring the effects of primary type (open, closed, or hybrid) and voter access laws.

A full report can be downloaded from FairVote’s website.

Record Breaking Republican Turnout, Decreases in Democratic Turnout

Overall, slightly fewer voters participated in the 2016 presidential primary elections compared to 2008 with nationwide turnout dropping to 29 percent. Almost all states, however, saw higher participation in Republican primaries and lower participation in Democratic primaries. Turnout data shows that more Americans than ever before participated in the 2016 Republican primaries.

In summary, compared to 2008:

  • 6 million fewer voters participated in Democratic primaries,
  • 8 million more voters participated in Republican primaries, and
  • 29 percent of eligible voters nationally participated in the primaries.

Wisconsin experienced increased participation by more than 10% compared to the 2008 primary elections. In Wisconsin, 49 percent of eligible voters participated in the primaries, the second-highest in the nation behind only New Hampshire, where 52 percent participated in the first-in-the-nation primary. Primary participation was lowest in Louisiana (18.2 percent), South Dakota (18.9 percent), New Jersey (21.0 percent) and Connecticut (21.0 percent).

Evidence of Voter Switching in Open Primary States

Republican participation increases and Democratic participation decreases are most notable in states with open primaries:

  • Republican participation increased 29 percent in closed primaries and 68 percent in open primaries
  • Democratic participation decreased 11 percent in closed primaries and 31 percent in open primaries

For these states, the relatively small changes in turnout contribute to evidence of party switching, wherein likely 2008 Democratic primary voters choose to cast ballots in Republican primary contests.

Voter ID Laws Have Minimal Impact Nationwide but Disproportionate Impact within Parties

Among the voter access laws studied, laws requiring voter identification impacted participation levels among Democrats and Republicans differently.

  • Overall turnout impact was not measurable. The mean 2016 turnout in states with ID law changes is 32 percent, states that never implemented an ID law averaged 34 percent turnout, and states that maintained ID laws averaged 27 percent turnout.
  • Republican participation increased by an average of 38 percent in states that did not change existing voter ID laws, with a similar margin for states without ID laws. Republican turnout increased 77 percent in states that introduced voter ID laws since 2008.
  • Democratic participation declined 31 percent in states that strengthened ID laws and 2 percent in states that made no changes to ID laws. Turnout declined 6 percent in states that never implemented an ID law.


Lawyers’ Committee Expresses Disappointment with Decision to Terminate Critical Federal Observer Program


The Justice Department has said it will no longer deploy federal observers inside polling sites, a long-standing and critical component of its election monitoring efforts.

The Justice Department announced that it will cease dispatching federal election observers to polling sites, based on the their interpretation of the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

The DOJ also issued a Fact Sheet further outlining the decision.  Federal election observers, specially trained individuals with authorization to enter polling locations and review the counting of the votes, have historically played a critical role monitoring elections to ensure that all voters are able to freely cast a ballot.

Here’s a statement from the committee:

“Literally, tens of thousands of federal observers had been dispatched to observe elections inside polling places in some of the most vulnerable communities across our country.  Federal observers helped to block and deter discriminatory conduct that might otherwise go undetected.  Without federal observers, greater vigilance will be required to fight voter suppression and discrimination at the polls.  While we disagree, the Justice Department’s decision to terminate the federal observer program further underscores the need for Congress to take action now to restore the Voting Rights Act in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision.”

Discriminatory conduct that plays out inside the polls on Election Day ranges from challengers that contest the eligibility of minority voters inside polling sites, to election officials failing to uniformly and evenly apply rules governing the voting process.  Federal observers are trained to document and record evidence that can be used in future litigation and often their presence can neutralize and discourage discriminatory conduct that might otherwise occur.

Under Section 8 of the Voting Rights Act, the attorney general can dispatch federal observers to a jurisdiction covered under Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act when it has received “written meritorious complaints” of concerns about racial discrimination concerning an election or otherwise determines such discrimination is likely to occur absent the observers.

Though the Supreme Court’s Shelby ruling regarding the unconstitutionality of the coverage formula for Section 5 preclearance did not reach or speak to continued use of the coverage formula for federal observers, the Department of Justice has interpreted the Shelby decision so that it also applies to observer coverage.

The Department has indicated that it will continue to monitor elections through smaller deployments of DOJ staff members.  In addition, federal observers will continue to be deployed when authorized by court order.

In the wake of the Justice Department’s decision, the Lawyers’ Committee will seek to expand its Election Protection program which is the nation’s leading nonpartisan election monitoring program.

Unlike DOJ observers, Election Protection monitors are not able to monitor elections from inside polling places.

However, through expanded presence on the ground, the Lawyers’ Committee and its partners will work to ensure that voters in vulnerable communities are provided critical support from monitors stationed outside polling sites and through its 866-OUR-VOTE hotline.  

Congressional Democrats—One from PA— Introduce Automatic Voter Registration Bill


Senior congressional lawmakers last week introduced the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016, a transformative bill that would add up to 50 million new voters by automatically registering eligible citizens to vote.

The initiative, led by Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) with Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),  Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), would also cut costs and improve the accuracy and security of America’s voter rolls.

Under the plan, when a citizen interacts with a government agency — for example, to get a driver’s license, apply for public services, apply for a license for a firearm, register for classes at a public university, or when becoming a naturalized citizen — she is automatically signed up to vote, unless she declines.

In the past 16 months, five states, several with bipartisan support, have adopted automatic registration, through the department of motor vehicles. Oregon, the first state to fully implement the plan, is now a national leader in voter registration rates, and has quadrupled its rate of new registrations at the DMV compared to previous years.

The Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016 builds off this tremendous momentum by expanding automatic registration nationwide, and to more government agencies.

“This bill is a significant breakthrough in the fight for a stronger democracy,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “Automatic, universal registration marks a paradigm shift in the way we run elections. It would enfranchise millions while boosting security and reducing error. In the long struggle for voting rights, this is an innovative and encouraging next step. Rep. Brady and Senate leaders deserve enormous credit for putting the fight for a stronger democracy at the heart of policy, where it belongs.”

“Voting is the foundation of democracy. Sadly, we have seen efforts to block access to voting in states across the country. One important step to improving access to the ballot box is making sure that voter registration is easy and accessible for every citizen,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “By automatically and securely registering every eligible voter, we encourage every American to participate in our elections — and that makes our democracy stronger. We commend Rep. Brady and Senators Leahy and Klobuchar for prioritizing voting rights.”

“Rep. Brady and Senate leaders’ comprehensive bill on automatic voter registration speaks to core democratic values — everyone participates and everyone’s voice should be heard and vote counted,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause. “Automatic voter registration could very well be a game-changer that could move us closer to realizing those principles. When government agencies — that already collect individuals’ voter eligibility information — register eligible citizens, they bring new voters into our political process. It’s these new voters who are still missing from our electorate, and who are very much needed if we are to have a truly representative and robust democracy.”

“The low rates of voter turnout that we see across the country reflect the barriers and hurdles that too many Americans face when registering to vote,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director, Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an organization that leads the national Election Protection program. “Numerous states have taken steps to create discriminatory and burdensome barriers to register to vote which greatly impact African Americans, poor people and other minority voters. Strengthening democracy requires bold action to make it easier for Americans to participate in elections. The Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016 is one important step that Congress can take to bring eligible Americans on to our registration rolls while igniting voter participation rates across our country.”

“Demos applauds the introduction of the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016, legislation that is designed to increase voter participation by modernizing voter registration systems nationwide,” said Brenda Wright, Demos’ vice president of policy and legal strategies. “Voter friendly reforms such as automatic voter registration, online voter registration, and portable voter registration can streamline and ease the voter registration process, ultimately adding millions of Americans to the voter rolls. Demos encourages broad and inclusive access to voting, and we are especially supportive of including agencies that serve a broad cross-section of citizens to take part in the voter registration process. Outdated, unnecessary, and cumbersome processes currently inhibit too many Americans from exercising their most fundamental of rights. Improvement of these processes is needed to achieve a robust, truly inclusive democracy and to promote the role of government as a good faith partner in this effort. We applaud Representative Brady and Senate leaders in their effort to improve our democracy.”

“The Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016 is a good first step toward bringing about universal voter registration, something many democracies already engage in by registering new voters at birth,” said Chris Shelton, president of the communications Workers of America. “Casting a vote on Election Day is a right of citizenship. Unfortunately, too many voters today are frustrated by an unwieldy and often inaccessible registration process. Our goal must be to encourage broad voter participation and modernize this process.”

“AAJC welcomes Representative Brady’s introduction of the Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016 as a positive first step in expanding accessibility to all eligible persons in the voter registration process,” said Terry Ao Minnis, director of census and voting programs, Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “The bill modernizes voter registration to be responsive to the changing landscape of our society, including taking advantage of technology.  Yet the bill also recognizes the key need for public education to ensure people are aware of the different ways to become registered and engaged.  We look forward to working with Mr. Brady to ensure that the Bill meets the needs of all communities to ensure all eligible persons are registered to vote.”

“The Automatic Voter Registration Act of 2016 would create a voter registration fit for the twenty-first century,” said Marissa Liebling, legislative director at Project Vote. “Unlike most developed democracies, the United States is unique in placing the burden to register almost entirely on the individual. Under our current system, voter registration problems, errors, or confusion can deprive eligible Americans of their right to cast a ballot that will count. By simplifying procedures and expanding agency voter registration, this Act would create a more efficient system while increasing voter registration rates.

The bill is a part of the House Democrats’ “By the People Package,” rolled out today, which strives to fix America’s broken democracy by improving voting access, reforming campaign finance laws, and fighting redistricting abuses.

Learn more about automatic voter registration. Read more from the Brennan Center’s Democracy Agenda.

Find more Election 2016 resources.