CSG’s Overseas Voting Initiative Releases New Report on Improving UOCAVA Data Collection

[Screenshot image via CSG OVI]

The Council on State Governments’ excellent Overseas Voting Initiative (CSG OVI) just released its latest report, which focuses on improving data collection on military and overseas voters through improvements to both the language of, and outreach surrounding, the biennial federal survey sent to election officials nationwide. Here’s the press release:

The Council of State Governments’ Overseas Voting Initiative recently published recommendations, as well as a corresponding final report, to improve Section B of the Election Administration and Voting Survey, or EAVS, which tracks military and overseas voter behavior.

The Council of State Governments has focused on improving Section B of the EAVS for the past year and a half in coordination with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Federal Voting Assistance Program, or FVAP, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, or EAC. The CSG EAVS Section B Working Group was formed, consisting of 13 state and local election administrators from across the nation.

“Working with election officials is critical to FVAP’s mission of supporting military and overseas citizen voters,” FVAP Director David Beirne said. “Our cooperative agreement with CSG has facilitated true collaboration with this dedicated community, especially in the important area of post-election survey data, which will drive greater insight into trends impacting military and overseas voters. Between these improvements and the work with the CSG Technology Working Group’s Data Standardization Sub-Group, FVAP is well positioned to apply more actionable data for improving the absentee voting process.”

Securing quality election data from the states has been a challenge for decades. The EAC administers EAVS, a federally mandated biennial survey, to collect state-by-state data on the administration of federal elections. A corresponding EAVS report captures data on the ability of civilian, military and overseas citizens to successfully cast a ballot and contains the most comprehensive, nationwide data about election administration in the United States. It is a survey of all states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“The EAC is pleased to have participated in the Overseas Voting Initiative’s EAVS Section B work effort led by FVAP and CSG in cooperation with some fantastic state and local election officials from all over the country,” U.S. Election Assistance Commission Matthew Masterson said. “Our 2015 EAC Data Summit was the catalyst for reassessing the approach to Section B and we hope the work we have done together will carry forward for future EAVS enhancements.”

The careful collection, management and analysis of good election administration data is critical to providing voters with the highest quality electoral experience possible as well as helping state and local election administrators run better elections. State election administrators use EAVS data to design election administration policies addressing the number of advanced voting locations, election administration office hours, the implementation of online voter registration systems and the use of voter information and voter communication tools.

The CSG EAVS Section B Working Group recommendations include:

-Eliminate redundant survey questions.
-Improve the understanding of each survey question.
-Establish greater outreach to states prior to the submission of each biennial survey.

“We’re very pleased that through our collaboration with FVAP to create the Overseas Voting Initiative and implement its many projects, we have been able to convene such a knowledgeable and dedicated group of election officials to work up solid improvements to the 2016 iteration of Section B of the EAVS and to join with FVAP and the EAC to set a path for future improvements to the survey,” said Kamanzi Kalisa, director of CSG’s Overseas Voting Initiative.

The CSG EAVS Section B Working Group is part of the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative, which was launched in 2013 in collaboration with FVAP to improve the return rate of overseas absentee ballots from service members and U.S. citizens living abroad.

The report itself is really smart about addressing the need to improve both the quality of data received and response rates. Especially interesting is the discussion of question wording; the working group identified areas that could be confusing to state and local election officials and proposed wording changes intended to elicit responses that are both clear and complete. So, for example, rather than ask for the number of UOCAVA ballots “returned and submitted for counting,” the survey would ask for ballots counted and ballots rejected – which gives both a complete picture of the total ballots received and the percent that were ultimately counted. There are numerous other examples like this in the recommendations, which should align more neatly with election offices’ existing data systems and result in better responses to the EAVS.

CSG OVI also has some great ideas about improving outreach to election offices around the EAVS. First, the report suggests updating the Supplemental Instruction Manual (SIM) to make it more readable overall as well as provide better definitions of who exactly qualifies as a UOCAVA voter and other key terms like “transmission” of ballots. The report also suggests a broader outreach strategy abound the EAVS, including webinars that would:

(1) orient jurisdictions to the EAVS, explaining why data are collected for specific items;

(2) walk jurisdictions through the survey question by question, explaining the changes in the SIM;

(3) explain how to use the data entry templates; and

(4) allow jurisdictions to ask questions about the EAVS.

Finally, the report also signals that many of these changes will be enhanced by the development of a data standard for this and other EAVS content:

The Section B Working Group conducted its work at the same time as the CSG Technology Working Group’s Data Standardization/Performance Metrics Subgroup. The Data Standardization Subgroup considered the benefits that would be achieved from having a single standard for collecting and reporting UOCAVA-specific voter data at the transaction level—each critical interaction between the voter and state or local election office. The subgroup recognized how the data currently reported in the EAVS Section B—the UOCAVA section of the survey—could be standardized for reporting purposes as part of an EAVS Section B Data Standard.

All in all, there are a number of tremendously good ideas in what is a relatively short report – reflecting CSG OVI’s clear focus on useful solutions that not only should be, but actually can be implemented at the election administration level. Kudos to the Working Group and the entire CSG OVI team – especially Michelle Shafer, one of my favorite electiongeek lifers – for their work on this very important topic.

This is data release season, with EAVS data for 2016 coming very soon … stay tuned!

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