Dee Finney's blog

start date July 20, 2011

today's date November 5, 2012

page 363






Will Election Day be a 'perfect storm?' Four nightmare scenarios for what could go wrong

With more than 90 million Americans expected to cast their ballots on Tuesday, election officials across the country are bracing for what some fear will be a “perfect storm” of Election Day problems that could result in tense confrontations at polling stations and a rush to the courthouse to file legal challenges.

The list of actual and potential problems is unusually long this year, ranging from concerns about machine failures to confusion over new rules governing voter ID and provisional ballots.

Another big wild card: the impact of groups such as “True the Vote,” a Tea Party off-shoot, that is vowing to swarm polling places with an army of hundreds of thousands of “citizen” poll watchers to look for fraud and challenge ineligible voters.

It’s a threat that civil rights groups are vowing to fight with their own rival armies of poll watchers -- to “monitor the monitors,” says one activist.

“Our election system has probably never been under as much strain as it is right now -- anything that can go wrong, probably will go wrong,” said Victoria Bassetti, a former Senate Judiciary Committee counsel and the author of the new book, “Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters.”

Bassetti notes that the camps backing both President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney have “pre-positioned their legal assets” by deploying thousands of volunteer lawyers to battleground states in order to challenge decisions by election supervisors, in court if necessary.

In Florida, the litigation is already heating up. On Sunday, the Florida Democratic Party filed emergency lawsuits to extend early voting -- challenging GOP governor Rick Scott’s refusal to do so -- after some voters were stuck in lines for up to six hours trying to meet Saturday’s deadline for early ballots. When the Miami Dade election office reopened to allow in-person absentee balloting, and then temporarily shut it down, frustrated voters started shouting, “Let Us Vote! Let Us Vote!”-- stirred up by a man wearing an Obama campaign tee shirt.

It could be a preview of what happens Tuesday. “We can expect lots of yelling and screaming- and lawsuits,” said Bassetti.

The upshot is that, if the voting is as close as some (but not all) polls suggest, the winner of the presidential election may not be known for days, if not weeks, after Election Day. “We’re going to be in sudden death overtime,” predicts John Fund, a former Wall Street Journal editorial writer and the co-author of “Who’s Counting: How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk.”

To be sure, disputes about voting are hardly new -- and some of the potential problems most frequently cited by advocates on both sides of the political fence could prove to be overblown.

But experts interviewed by NBC News identified a number of so-called “nightmare scenarios” that could complicate the counting of returns on Tuesday.

Here’s a look at four of those scenarios:

1) The national vote count for president is thrown into doubt because of the impact of Hurricane Sandy.

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast appears likely to hold down vote totals in the region. In New Jersey, hundreds of polling stations may be without power -- late last week nearly half of the 240 locations in Hudson County were out of commission and officials are scrambling to find alternatives.

On Saturday, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration announced that it will allow voters to download ballots off a state Website and return them by e-mail -- a system that some experts have warned could lead to tampering by hackers. (A voting group called the Verified Voting Foundation has repeatedly warned about the security risks from Internet voting.)

On Thursday, the state’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guardagno, said the state will deploy Defense Department trucks with “Vote Here” signs, protected by National Guard members. But that plan prompted concerns among some Democrats that military trucks could intimidate voters, especially in minority neighborhoods, and there were signs over the weekend that officials may be backing away from it.

“Obviously, this is uncharted water for us -- getting hit with this at this late date just before a huge election,” said Michael Harper, the clerk of elections in New Jersey’s Hudson County, during a tour of damaged and flooded polling stations on Saturday.

While the hardest hit states like New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut are all considered reliably Democratic and safely in the Obama column, the aftermath of the hurricane could affect the president’s total national vote counts -- and raise questions about his mandate or even legitimacy if he loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College (just as some Democrats questioned President George W. Bush’s legitimacy after he lost the popular vote in 2000.)

2) A large number of provisional ballots makes the Electoral College winner impossible to determine on election night.

The situation appears most acute in Ohio, a crucial battleground, where some experts have warned about a counting disaster stemming from what are expected to be as many as 200,000 provisional ballots.

The background: in an effort to impose uniformity, GOP Secretary of State Jon Husted over the summer directed that absentee ballot applications be mailed out to all of the state’s 6.9 million registered voters -- regardless of whether they had asked for them or not.

About 1.3 million voters filled out those applications and received absentee ballots in the mail. But as of this weekend, 238,678 voters who got absentee ballots had not returned them. If those voters don’t return their ballots by mail by tomorrow and try to go to the polls on Tuesday instead, they along with others whose eligibility could be questioned or who show up at the wrong polling station, will have to cast provisional ballots to make sure they haven’t vote twice. And under Ohio law, those ballots can’t even be counted until Nov. 16, ten days after Election Day.

“There’s a realistic chance that we will not know which candidate won the presidential election in Ohio because of the existence of provisional ballots, that we will be in overtime,” said Edward Foley, an election law expert and professor of law at Ohio State University.

The issue intensified on Friday when Husted issued a new directive that puts the burden on voters, rather than poll workers, to properly fill out a form recording what ID was presented for provisional ballots -- and instructing election boards to throw out provisional ballots if the forms are incomplete or contain any mistakes. , increasing the likelihood of disputes over the counting of provisional ballots in a pivotal battleground state.

3) Disputes over ballot printing errors, machine errors and a lack of paper trail could bog down the counting in other battleground states.

This problem has already arisen in Florida. About 27,000 absentee ballots in Palm Beach County, Florida -- famous for its “butterfly” ballots and hanging chads during the 2000 Florida recount -- can’t be read by voting machines because of a printing error. This forced election officials last week to begin the arduous process of hand-copying those ballots in order to feed them into the machines -- while lawyers from both sides looked on, raising challenges.

An exasperated Susan Bucher, the county’s election supervisor, was caught on camera admonishing lawyers over what she termed “frivolous” objections and threatening to eject them.

But questions about machine failures are far broader than that. Last week, lawyers for the Republican National Committee wrote letters to attorneys general in six states asking for investigations after receiving reports that some voters had complained that machines had recorded their votes for Mitt Romney as being for Obama.


“we risk catastrophe” if recounts are required in Virginia and Pennsylvania “because most of their votes will be cast on paperless voting machines that are impossible to recount.”

4) Legions of citizen poll watchers on both sides create confusion and even chaos at some polling stations.

“True the Vote,” the Texas-based Tea Party inspired group, has launched an aggressive national effort to root out vote fraud, providing training videos and computer software (that contain data on property records and death indexes) to help volunteers identify ineligible voters who show up at the polls on Tuesday.

Hans Von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commissioner who serves as one of the group’s advisers, defends the effort, telling NBC News that in a close election “any bogus vote” needs to be stopped. “Anytime you have a close election, a small amount of fraud could make the difference.”

But voting rights groups say “True the Vote” and its affiliates threaten to intimidate legitimate voters -- a prospect they aim to combat with their own battalions of citizen poll watchers on Tuesday.

Judith Browne Dianas, co-director of the “Advancement Project,” a civil rights group, says her organization has lined up thousands of lawyers and poll watchers in 20 key states to look for “suspicious activity” by True the Vote and its affiliates. “We will also be watching the poll watchers making sure they aren’t acting as bullies,” she says.



Sunday, November 4, 2012

NATE SILVER: Obama’s Odds Of Winning Have Now Hit 85%

Henry Blodget
Business Insider
November 4, 2012
With two days to go, Obama’s odds of winning re-election have reached their highest level ever, according to New York Times polling guru Nate Silver.
Betting markets Intrade and Betfair also show the President maintaining a solid lead, though with much less conviction.
These assessments come despite the continued release of some polls that look good for Romney. The difference between the national polls and the betting markets, some polling experts say, is that the national polls focus on the popular vote, whereas Silver’s odds focus on state-by-state polls aimed at determining the winner of the electoral college and, with it, the Presidency. Nate Silver’s model also averages hundreds of polls.
Nate Silver is so confident in his polling model that he publicly offered to bet MSNBC host Joe Scarborough who would win the election. Scarborough, who maintains that the election is a “toss-up,” has not accepted the challenge.
Let’s go to the data…
First, Nate Silver now gives Obama 85% chance of reelection. That’s up from a post-first-debate low of ~60% three weeks ago, and it’s higher than the 80% previous all-time peak Obama hit just before the first debate.
Nate Silver Election Odds
Nate Silver, New York Times

On Intrade, meanwhile, Obama’s odds are now at 63%, a drop of a few points from yesterday, back in a range in the low 60s where they’ve been for the last few weeks.
Intrade election odds

Intrade election odds

And, on Betfair, Obama’s odds are holding above 75%.
Betfair election odds
In short, in everything but some of the national polls, Obama has a strong lead heading into the last two days of the race.

Nov. 4: Did Hurricane Sandy Blow Romney Off Course?

If President Obama wins re-election on Tuesday, the historical memory of the race might turn on the role played by Hurricane Sandy.

Already, some analysts are describing the storm as an “October surprise” that allowed Mr. Obama to regain his footing after stumbling badly in the first presidential debate and struggling to get back on course. Some Republicans seem prepared to blame a potential defeat for Mitt Romney on the storm, and the embrace of Mr. Obama by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other public officials.

The theory has some appeal. The last three days of polling have brought what is almost certainly Mr. Obama’s strongest run of polling since the first presidential debate in Denver. Mr. Obama led in the vast majority of battleground-state polls over the weekend. And increasingly, it is hard to find leads for Mr. Romney in national surveys — although several of them show a tie.

When the hurricane made landfall in New Jersey on Oct. 29, Mr. Obama’s chances of winning re-election were 73 percent in the FiveThirtyEight forecast. Since then, his chances have risen to 86 percent, close to his highs on the year.

But, while the storm and the response to it may account for some of Mr. Obama’s gains, it assuredly does not reflect the whole of the story. Read more…

State and National Polls Come Into Better Alignment

It appears that President Obama is likely to go into Election Day with a very modest lead in the average of national polls.

As of this writing, on Sunday evening, Mr. Obama led by an average of 1.3 percentage points across 12 national polls that had been published over the course of the prior 24 hours. The range was quite tight, running from a tied race in the polls issued by Rasmussen Reports, CNN and Politico, to a three-point lead in three other surveys.

This happens to be a reasonably friendly group of polls for Mr. Obama, and it’s more likely than not that at least some national polls published late Sunday or on Monday will still show Mitt Romney ahead.

Nevertheless, there is enough data to conclude that Mr. Obama probably has a slight edge from national surveys, which until recently had pointed toward a tie — or perhaps a modest advantage for Mr. Romney in the immediate aftermath of the Denver debate.

A number of these polls had very large sample sizes, meaning that the results are less likely than usual to have resulted from statistical variance.

But the modest gains that Mr. Obama has made in the high-profile national surveys should not be that much of a surprise. Read more…

In Virginia, It’s Tradition Versus Change

We continue our Presidential Geography series, a one-by-one examination of each state’s political landscape and how it is changing. Here is Virginia, the Old Dominion. FiveThirtyEight spoke with Daniel Palazzolo, a professor of political science at the University of Richmond, and Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Polling of the presidential race in Virginia has been particularly volatile. Since the beginning of October, polls at various points have shown both a seven-point lead for Mitt Romney and a seven-point lead for President Obama.

The political landscape in Virginia has shifted dramatically in recent years, and the disagreement among the polls is essentially a disagreement about which Virginia will dominate on Election Day: the reliably Republican “Old Virginia,” which is more religious, rural, working-class and white, or the politically competitive “New Virginia,” which is more secular, urban, diverse and white-collar.

In 2008, New Virginia made its debut at the presidential level, with Mr. Obama becoming the first Democrat to carry the state since 1964. He won by six percentage points.

But in the following two years, Old Virginia has roared back. Read more…

Nov. 3: Romney’s Reason to Play for Pennsylvania

The Saturday before the election produced a predictably large volume of polling in battleground states — but also some predictable-seeming results, with most of the polls coming close to the average of other polls.

Because President Obama leads in the polling average in most of the swing states, this means that most of the polls there on Saturday showed him ahead as well. Among the 21 polls in battleground states on Saturday, 16 had Mr. Obama ahead as compared with just two leads for Mr. Romney; three other battleground state polls had the race tied.

Some of the consistency in these results may reflect a tendency of polls to converge or “herd” around the polling average close to Election Day. This may occur because some polling firms alter their turnout models or other aspects of the polls so as not to produce outliers — a dubious practice if the goal is to provide an objective take on the race.

At the same time, Mr. Obama’s state polls continue to show more strength than they did just after the Denver debate. As we wrote on Saturday, we are at the point where the polls would have to be biased against Mr. Romney (in a statistical sense) in order for him to win the Electoral College.

It is worth emphasizing the point once more that, for all the distractions caused by individual polls, the polling averages have been very reliable in the era of rich state polling. Read more…

Nov. 2: For Romney to Win, State Polls Must Be Statistically Biased

President Obama is now better than a 4-in-5 favorite to win the Electoral College, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast. His chances of winning it increased to 83.7 percent on Friday, his highest figure since the Denver debate and improved from 80.8 percent on Thursday.

Friday’s polling should make it easy to discern why Mr. Obama has the Electoral College advantage. There were 22 polls of swing states published Friday. Of these, Mr. Obama led in 19 polls, and two showed a tie. Mitt Romney led in just one of the surveys, a Mason-Dixon poll of Florida.

Although the fact that Mr. Obama held the lead in so many polls is partly coincidental — there weren’t any polls of North Carolina on Friday, for instance, which is Mr. Romney’s strongest battleground state — they nevertheless represent powerful evidence against the idea that the race is a “tossup.” A tossup race isn’t likely to produce 19 leads for one candidate and one for the other — any more than a fair coin is likely to come up heads 19 times and tails just once in 20 tosses. (The probability of a fair coin doing so is about 1 chance in 50,000.)

Instead, Mr. Romney will have to hope that the coin isn’t fair, and instead has been weighted to Mr. Obama’s advantage. Read more…

Revisiting Our February Jobs Prediction

Friday’s jobs report was a reasonably strong one, economically speaking. The economy added 171,000 jobs in October, according to the government’s survey of business establishments. In addition, estimates of jobs growth were revised upward for August and September.

The unemployment rate, which is calculated through a separate survey of households, ticked up to 7.9 percent. But this was because it was estimated that more workers, 578,000, entered the labor force in October, outweighing what it said were 410,000 people who found jobs.

Is the report good enough to have an impact on the waning days of the campaign? There is a dispute in the political science literature about whether voters react to underlying economic conditions, or rather, to the news media’s coverage of the economy.

If it’s the real-world conditions that count, the actual act of the government publishing the jobs figures is unimportant. People will already have observed local economic conditions and incorporated them into their decision of who they might vote for. Read more…

Nov. 1: The Simple Case for Saying Obama Is the Favorite

If you are following some of the same people that I do on Twitter, you may have noticed some pushback about our contention that Barack Obama is a favorite (and certainly not a lock) to be re-elected. I haven’t come across too many analyses suggesting that Mitt Romney is the favorite. (There are exceptions.) But there are plenty of people who say that the race is a “tossup.”

What I find confounding about this is that the argument we’re making is exceedingly simple. Here it is:

Obama’s ahead in Ohio.

A somewhat-more-complicated version:

Mr. Obama is leading in the polls of Ohio and other states that would suffice for him to win 270 electoral votes, and by a margin that has historically translated into victory a fairly high percentage of the time.

The argument that Mr. Obama isn’t the favorite is the one that requires more finesse. If you take the polls at face value, then the popular vote might be a tossup, but the Electoral College favors Mr. Obama.

So you have to make some case for why the polls shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Some argue that the polls are systematically biased against Republicans. This might qualify as a simple argument had it been true on a consistent basis historically, but it hasn’t been: instead, there have been some years when the polls overestimated how well the Democrat would do, and about as many where the same was true for the Republican. I’m sympathetic to the notion that the polls could be biased, statistically speaking, meaning that they will all miss in the same direction. The FiveThirtyEight forecast explicitly accounts for the possibility that the polls are biased toward Mr. Obama — but it also accounts for the chance that the polls could be systematically biased against him.

Others argue that undecided voters tend to break against the incumbent, in this case Mr. Obama. But this has also not really been true in recent elections. In some states, also, Mr. Obama is at 50 percent of the vote in the polling average, or close to it, meaning that he wouldn’t need very many undecided voters to win.

A third argument is that Mr. Romney has the momentum in the polls: whether or not he would win an election today, the argument goes, he is on a favorable trajectory that will allow him to win on Tuesday.

This may be the worst of the arguments, in my view. It is contradicted by the evidence, simply put. Read more…

In Nevada, Obama, Ryan and Signs of a New (Democratic-Leaning) Normal

We continue our Presidential Geography series, a one-by-one examination of each state’s political landscape and how it is changing. Here is Nevada, the Silver State. FiveThirtyEight spoke with Jon Ralston, a longtime political reporter in Nevada who runs his own political commentary site,, and hosts a public affairs program also called “Ralston Reports;” and David Damore, an associate professor of political science at University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

With less than a week until Election Day, Nevada’s six electoral votes remain pivotal. After three days of campaigning were canceled so he could oversee the federal response to Hurricane Sandy, President Obama returned to the trail Thursday, including a stop in North Las Vegas in the afternoon. That was about the same time that Representative Paul D. Ryan spoke in Reno, Nev.

Nevada should be one of the more promising battleground states for the campaign of Mitt Romney and Mr. Ryan. The state’s economy is in disrepair. Its unemployment rate, 11.8 percent, is the worst in the nation, and personal bankruptcies and foreclosures have ravaged the state.

In addition, although their effect can be overstated, Mormons make up 9 percent of Nevada’s population, tied for the third-largest share of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormon voters are expected to overwhelmingly support Mr. Romney, a Mormon himself.

Yet, just a single poll all year has found Mr. Romney leading Mr. Obama in Nevada. The race appears close, but polls show Mr. Obama retaining a consistent, if narrow, lead of 3.4 percentage points. And Nevada remains one of the more solid bricks in Mr. Obama’s Electoral College “firewall.”

How has Mr. Obama’s support in Nevada weathered the state’s struggling economy? Or, as Mr. Ralston put it, “How in the world is the president not getting crushed here?” Read more…

Oct. 31: Obama’s Electoral College ‘Firewall’ Holding in Polls

On Oct. 11, this blog posed the question of whether President Obama’s “firewall” in battleground states was all that it was cracked up to be.

At that point, Mr. Obama still technically held the lead in the FiveThirtyEight forecast in enough states to give him 270 electoral votes. But Colorado, Florida and Virginia had turned red in our map, meaning that our forecast suggested that Mitt Romney had better-than-even odds of winning them. Iowa was just on the verge of doing so. And Mr. Obama’s lead was down to just a percentage point or so in Ohio, which would have collapsed his firewall at its foundation.

Theories that the decline in Mr. Obama’s polls that followed the first presidential debate in Denver would somehow skip the swing states were not looking good — as dubious as the idea that tornadoes “skip” houses.

Instead, at that point, Mr. Obama’s position in the FiveThirtyEight forecast had declined for seven consecutive days. If he stopped the bleeding there, he might still be the Electoral College favorite, albeit a narrow one. But it wasn’t clear where the bottom was.

It turned out, however, that the worst was almost over for him. Mr. Obama had one more terrible day in the polls, on Friday, Oct. 12, when Mr. Romney’s chances of winning the Electoral College rose to almost 40 percent in the forecast. But that was when Mr. Romney’s momentum stopped.

Since then, Mr. Obama’s standing has rebounded slightly. His position in the national polls has stabilized; although the national polls continue to tell a different story about the race than the state polls do; it can no longer be said that they have Mr. Obama behind. Read more…

Oct. 30: What State Polls Suggest About the National Popular Vote

Mitt Romney and President Obama remain roughly tied in national polls, while state polls are suggestive of a lead for Mr. Obama in the Electoral College. Most people take this to mean that there is a fairly good chance of a split outcome between the Electoral College and the popular vote, as we had in 2000. But the story may not be so simple

For both the swing state polls and the national polls to be right, something else has to give to make the math work. If Mr. Obama is performing well in swing states, but is only tied in the popular vote nationally, that means he must be underperforming in noncompetitive states.

But polls of noncompetitive states don’t always cooperate with the story. Take the polls that were out on Tuesday.

Mr. Obama trailed by “only” eight points, for instance, in a poll of Georgia that was released on Tuesday. Those are somewhat worse results than Mr. Obama achieved in 2008, when he lost Georgia by five percentage points. But they’re only a little bit worse, whereas the national polls are suggestive of a larger decline for Mr. Obama in the popular vote.

Or take the poll of Texas, also out on Tuesday, which had Mr. Obama behind by 16 points there. He’s obviously no threat to win the state or come close to it, but that still represents only a 4-point decline for Mr. Obama from 2008, when he lost Texas by 12 points instead. Read more…