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Massachusetts' Solution for Digital Voting History Records is 'Plug and Play'

The state uses a new civic tech solution that can convert election results from any state into friendly machine readable formats.

by / April 3, 2014
Adam Friedman, the creator of the online voting history platform ElectionStats, stands outside the Massachusetts State House. The platform is now part of the state's official Web site serving Massachusetts residents. Christopher Huang

Voting could be the one quintessential act truly representative of American democracy. And yet, as  counterintuitive as it might seem, voting history records can be surprisingly undemocratic when archived away from public view.

It’s a transparency problem, according to Adam Friedman, a civic technologist and founder of ViV Web Solutions. But the remedy could be ElectionStats, a Web platform that digitizes voting history records through an online dashboard and database. The platform has already been deployed this year in Friedman’s home state of Massachusetts by State Secretary William Galvin, and Friedman hopes other cites and states will purchase it as an alternative to the tomes of archival data — books that can require lengthy manual searches.

"I've designed the platform specifically with the varying quirks of different states’ data in mind. The site is pluggable with any state’s data,” Friedman said.

Massachusetts has employed the platform under the appellation “PD43+,” a title derived from its state report known as “Public Document 43” that chronicles all Massachusetts' elections and ballot question results bi-annually -- with exception of local contests.

Since January, PD43+ contained election data that dates back to the 1970s, a robust compilation containing statistics from approximately 23,000 elections, 10,000 candidate profiles and 1,500 ballot questions. PD43+’s most notable attribute, Friedman said, is the election insights it offers that boil down as far as the precinct level for elections from 2002 upwards, and to the town and city level before 2002.

A self-labeled advocate for election reform, Friedman said the idea for ElectionStats was inspired by research for data about split voting tactics and spoiler candidates. During the process Friedman said he couldn’t believe how antiquated and manually intensive it was to go through novel-sized record books.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm a programmer and this seems really, really, stupid and cumbersome.' So I was able to find PDF scans of these [election records], but had to scrape the data from the PDFs.”

ElectionStats was born out of this need to remove formatting hurdles that stand in front of citizens, while at the same time, creating convenience and transparency. The platform can now handle everything from PDFs, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, to hyperlinks pointing to static HTML Web pages.

Sara Brady, a policy director at MassVOTE, a non-partisan organization that  works to mobilize underrepresented voters in Massachusetts, said the tool has been invaluable to supercharge their research.

“It just makes the information a lot more accessible to the everyday voter,” she said.

Voter turnout analysis is a common practice to measure the impact of MassVOTE’s outreach. It’s also a way the group is able to identify communities with underrepresented populations. For each full election cycle, Brady said ElectionStats saves the organization about one-to-two weeks of research done by a four-person team.

“Now we can be looking at that data in a matter of a couple of hours to figure out everything we’re looking for,” she said.

While Friedman is a board member for MassVote, a fact he offers in full disclosure, the platform has been similarly endorsed by Steve Koczela, President of MassINC Polling Group and Massachusetts State Senator Will Brownsberger.

Friedman said in the coming months he anticipates unveiling new features that will include a mobile version of the platform for on-the-fly reference, a mapping functionality so users can link results to geography and the ability to download search results in bulk. These additions will be followed with new voter turnout and party enrollment statistics.

ElectionStats has an average price point just under $100,000 for small states and around $200,000 for larger states. However, Friedman said, costs are minimal compared to Web development firms such as Deloitte and CGI that can ask as much as $1 million to $2 million for similar enterprise solutions.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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