Improved election data would mean a better informed electorate

Guest Opinion//March 1, 2013

Improved election data would mean a better informed electorate

Guest Opinion//March 1, 2013

For the past two months, the Arizona Capitol Times and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting have sifted through the more than 2.3 million votes cast in the 2012 election, with the goal of offering readers a deeper understanding of how Arizona voted.

From close races, like the fight over Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, to strange voting patterns in Colorado City, our “Mapping the Vote” project showed why some races turned out as they did, what factors led to victories or defeats and how some of the details in the election results can say a lot more about groups of voters than simply who they elected.

But something else became clear during the project. While this type of analysis takes a lot of time and resources, it shouldn’t be made more difficult because of inconsistencies in the way the data is organized and structured — or because of how state and county election officials make data available.

The majority of Arizona’s 15 counties used one election data reporting system, but not all of them. The result was data organized differently enough to prevent statewide analysis for certain types of election data.

In a state that saw high numbers of provisional votes cast, for example, variations in the way provisional ballot data was organized stifled a comparative analysis across all counties.

Even within the reporting system used by most counties, there were variations in how final canvass reports were structured, while still meeting the state’s reporting requirements.

Sean Greene, the election initiatives research manager at Pew Charitable Trusts, argues that structuring election data in a uniform manner should be just as important as other government data, such as statistics in public health. This information is routinely made available to the public because there has been a recognition that the public benefits from having it.

The same attitude should be applied to election data.

Ultimately, the ways that counties handle their election data affects the ability of journalists, researchers, lawmakers — or anyone else for that matter — to efficiently monitor our state’s election process.

Another component to this is the consistency by which counties provide the information and the process used to share it.

Most county election officials should be lauded for their efforts to make election data available. But others seemed confused about what data are actually a public record. Some shrugged and pointed us to their state-required canvass export, because it was what was required and was already complete. Worse, some ignored repeated phone calls and emails for weeks on end, or sought ways to deny data requests.

If we want to see a more efficient process to analyze our elections, it would be wise, first, to find ways to ensure that election data is structured consistently among counties, and second, to seek an agreement that state and county elections officials should pro- actively make available any and all election data that is legally permissible under our open records laws, in a variety of formats, including raw databases, online, for free.

These changes would invariably lead to a better understanding of our elections and a greater likelihood that election malfeasance is uncovered when it takes place. It also would provide increased transparency and the benefits generally associated with open government.

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett says that he would be happy to encourage both greater consistency in the structure of the data as well as unhindered availability of any and all data that’s covered in the state’s public records laws, even if that goes above what is required by the state for the official canvass.

But Bennett is quick to note that he is only in a position to encourage such changes.

“Mandating is a whole other story,” he said.

Counties are entitled to a level of autonomy and costs associated with changing any system can become prohibitive, especially if improvements are only being encouraged.

Still, exploring the possibility of greater consistency within election data and broader access to database forms of this information would be a step in the right direction. It would not only bring increased transparency to Arizona’s election process but also would allow for better accountability in the election system.

— Evan Wyloge is new media specialist at the Arizona Capitol Times and Brandon Quester is associate director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.