MIT PhD candidate Jacob Jaffe uses data science to identify and solve problems in election administration.
Leda Zimmerman | Department of Political Science
Graduate student Jacob Jaffe wants to improve the administration of American elections. To do that, he is posing “questions in political science that we haven’t been asking enough,” he says, “and solving them with methods we haven’t been using enough.”
Considerable research has been devoted to understanding “who votes, and what makes people vote or not vote,” says Jaffe. He is training his attention on questions of a different nature: Does providing practical information to voters about how to cast their ballots change how they will vote? Is it possible to increase the accuracy of vote-counting, on a state-by-state and even precinct-by-precinct basis? How do voters experience polling places? These problems form the core of his dissertation.
Taking advantage of the resources at the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, where he serves as a researcher, Jaffe conducts novel field experiments to gather highly detailed information on local, state, and federal elections, and analyzes this trove with advanced statistical techniques. Whether investigating the probability of miscounts in voting, or the possibility of changing a voter’s mode of voting, Jaffe intends to strengthen the scaffolding that supports representative government. “Elections are both theoretically and normatively important; they’re the basis of our belief in the moral rightness of the state to do the things the state does,” he says.
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For one of his keystone projects, Jaffe seized a unique opportunity to run a big field experiment. In summer 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, he emailed 80,000 Floridians instructions on how to vote in an upcoming primary by mail. His email contained a link enabling recipients to fill out two simple questions to receive a ballot. “I wanted to learn if this was an effective method for getting people to vote by mail, and I proved it is, statistically,” he says. “This is important to know because if elections are held in times when we might need people to vote nonlocally or vote using one method over another — if they’re displaced by a hurricane or another emergency, for instance — I learned that we can effect a new vote mode practically and quickly.”
One of Jaffe’s insights from this experiment is that “people do read their voting-related emails, but the content of the email has to be something they can act on proximately,” he says. “A message reminding them to vote two weeks from now is not so helpful.” The lower the burden on an individual to participate in voting, whether due to proximity to a polling site or instructions on how to receive and cast a ballot, the greater the likelihood of that person engaging in the election.
“If we want people to vote by mail, we need to reduce the informational cost so it’s easier for voters to understand how the system works,” he says.
Another significant research thrust for Jaffe involves scrutinizing accuracy in vote counting, using instances of recounts in presidential elections. Ensuring each vote counts, he says, “is one of the most fundamental questions in democracy,” he says.
With access to 20 elections in 2020, Jaffe is comparing original vote totals for each candidate to the recounted, correct tally, on a precinct-level basis. “Using original combinatorial techniques, I can estimate the probability of miscounting ballots,” he says. The ultimate goal is to generate a granular picture of the efficacy of election administration across the country.
“It varies a lot by state, and most states do a good job,” he says. States that take their time in counting perform better. “There’s a phenomenon where some towns race to get results in as quickly as possible, and this affects their accuracy.”
In spite of the bright spots, Jaffe sees chronic underfunding of American elections. “We need to give local administrators the resources, the time and money to fund employees to do their jobs,” he says. The worse the situation is, “the more likely that elections will be called wrong, with no one knowing.” Jaffe believes that his analysis can offer states useful information for improving election administration. “Determining how good a place is historically at counting ballots can help determine the likelihood of needing costly recounts in future elections,” he says.
The ballot box and beyond
It didn’t take Jaffe long to decide on a life dedicated to studying politics. Part of a Boston-area family who, he says, “liked discussing what was going on in the world,” he had his own subscriptions to Time magazine at age 9, and to The Economist in middle school. During high school, he volunteered for then-Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank and Senator John Kerry, working on constituent services. At Rice University, he interned all four years with political scientist Robert M. Stein, an expert on voting and elections. With Stein’s help, Jaffe landed a position the summer before his senior year with the Department of Justice (DOJ), researching voting rights cases.
“The experience was fascinating, and the work felt super important,” says Jaffe. His portfolio involved determining whether legal challenges to particular elections met the statistical standard for racial gerrymandering. “I had to answer hard quantitative questions about the relationship between race and voting in an area, and whether minority candidates were systematically prevented from winning,” he says.
But while Jaffe cared a lot about this work, he didn’t feel adequately challenged. “As a 21-year-old at DOJ, I learned that I could address problems in the world using statistics,” he says. “But I felt I could have a greater impact addressing tougher questions outside of voting rights.”
Jaffe was drawn to political science at MIT, and specifically to the research of Charles Stewart III, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, director of the MIT Election Lab, and head of Jaffe’s thesis committee. It wasn’t just the opportunity to plumb the lab’s singular repository of voting data that attracted Jaffe, but its commitment to making every vote count. For Jaffe, this was a call to arms to investigate the many, and sometimes quotidian, obstacles, between citizens and ballot boxes.
To this end, he has been analyzing, with the help of mathematical methods from queuing theory, why some elections involve wait lines of six hours and longer at polling sites. “We know that simpler ballots mean people move don’t get stuck in these lines, where they might potentially give up before voting,” he says. “Looking at the content of ballots and the interval between voter check-in and check-out, I learned that adding races, rather than candidates, to a ballot, means that people take more time completing ballots, leading to interminable lines.”
A key takeaway from his ensemble of studies is that “while it’s relatively rare that elections are bad, we shouldn’t think that we’re good to go,” he says. “Instead, we need to be asking under what conditions do things get bad, and how can we make them better.”