They say “all politics is local,” and maybe that’s true, but not when it comes to actual local politics. In the elections that come closest to home, most people haven’t got a clue.
Turnout in local elections runs low, ranging from 27 to 34 percent, according to recent research. As a result, “important public policy decisions are being made without the input of most of the affected residents,” researchers note.
The U.S. Vote Foundation is looking to technology to improve the situation by making a range of polling information available to broad audiences of voters and groups that work to enable voting.
“These are the elections that impact people the most, and they are opting out because they don’t have access to the information,” said President and CEO Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “Data is the key that will unlock the door to what has been obscured to our citizens for a long time.”
The foundation got its start in 2005 as the Overseas Vote Foundation, which sought to enable voting among military personnel and other Americans living abroad. At the time, these groups had a hard time accessing the information and documentation needed to cast a vote from afar. As part of its work, the organization established an online wizard that makes available state-specific voter registration and absentee ballot request forms.
Founders came to realize that voters on the home front faced many of the same impediments to participation that challenged citizens abroad. In 2012 the group rebranded to reflect a shift in focus toward domestic voting issues, and lately it has taken up the more specific cause of local balloting.
The foundation has pursued several avenues in its quest to unlock voting data, starting with the construction of a massive data that compiles much previously unavailable information in a single source.
“This includes information for 8,000 election offices, and it’s not just one thing in those offices. The data is very deep,” said Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “We have the names and email addresses and phone numbers. We have multiple addresses for them. There are so many ways to connect with an election office, and we have all that in one record, standardized and normalized online.”
Data is verified at the source: Last year, 64 percent of U.S. election officials responded to the foundation’s requests to update their records. The group says the high response rate reflects its long track record. “They are not going to respond to just anyone. It’s about trust,” said Dzieduszycka-Suinat. “In 12 years we have never sold this database to a vendor. We have always honored what they do.”
The group does share the information but only with trusted partners, including the U.S. Postal Service, the National Association of Secretaries of State, Rock the Vote, Vote.org and even some corporations. Exxon Mobile, for instance, licenses the data to help its overseas workers access the polls.
The directory incorporates an application programing interface (API), meant to enable partners to make use of the data within their own applications.
In addition to contact information, the group has compiled data around voter eligibility, regulations around voting, and the increasingly hot topic of voter ID requirements. These can vary widely among states and are presently in flux in many places.
“By not having a single national voter ID, we create a massive data challenge,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. “There is huge variation in ID requirements, in what is preferred or what is acceptable, and that in turn creates a barrier to voting. The only way to simplify that is to take the data, to put it into plain language and to make it available.”
Voters also need access to data on election dates and deadlines, information that at present can only be compiled through laborious manual effort. “You can’t scrape it,” Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. “We scour the state sites for that data, which may be in PDF form on a calendar, or it may be on the website. We also work backward, looking at their laws and piecing together the calendar ourselves, and then contacting the state to confirm the information is correct.”
Most recently the foundation has taken all these statewide efforts and brought them down to the local level. A Knight Foundation Prototype Fund grant for “Local Election Dates and Deadlines (LEDD) Data Resource and API” served to kick-start the program, enabling development of a prototype database and API.
“The Prototype Fund is about testing ideas that may fail, change or succeed; it gives teams perspective on developing the best versions of their project, or in some cases rethinking their ideas,” said Chris Barr, Knight Foundation director for media innovation who heads up the Prototype Fund. “We have seen several great projects get their start through the process and go on to increase their impact through the lessons they’ve learned.”
The database now under development is expected to contain at least 20 data points for any given local race. “It’s not just the date of the election, which maybe you can find," Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. "It’s when you can register, how to make a ballot request, whether there is early voting, what the return dates are for absentee ballots, as well as filing dates for people who want to run.”
In the absence of such a database, local voting data “just does not exist,” she said. “You cannot go anywhere and find local election dates and deadlines.”
That’s problematic not just for voters but also for aspiring office holders. “There are people who want to run for office who don’t know when elections are happening. There are other people who want to run candidates or find candidates, and none of them can find that information,” she said.
With a comprehensive database, candidates and voters alike could have greater access to a system that for many has been largely opaque.