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electionlineWeekly — August 7, 2014

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I. In Focus This Week

Colorado opens its books to the people and data geeks
New website provides treasure trove of election data

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There’s a lot of talk these days about transparent and open governments and recently the Colorado Secretary of State’s office put their money where their mouth is and created a statewide elections data portal.

The Accountability in Colorado Elections (ACE) site was launched in late July and it provides, through a series of interactive maps, charts and tables, Colorado election data by county.

Although all of this information has long been publicly available, it was not centrally located, thus sending those seeking the information to as many as 64 different websites and elections office.

This is a big step forward in the world of elections data.

“Over a century ago, states started reporting election returns in a centralized, uniform fashion, which was an important step in reassuring the public that election results were determined above-board,” said Charles Stewart, the Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science at MIT. “Now, the big question is, ‘what are election officials DOING in their jobs?’ Something like ACE helps answer that question. 

Colorado is the first state to put all of the county information in one centralized location.

“I wish all states would do something like this — that the EAC [The U.S. Election Assistance Commission] would take the data it collects through the Election Administration and Voting Survey and present it in as attractive package as this,” Stewart said.

According to a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, the decision to put the information online was all about bringing accountability to the taxpayers.

“… Colorado counties spent $7.5 million to administer the 2013 elections. Coloradans deserve to know how that money is being spent,” said Andrew Cole, a spokesman for Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler.

Cole added that while Colorado is proud to lead the way in election transparency, for the secretary of state’s office the system was built for the people of Colorado.

Much of the information on the site centers on the statewide election that takes place each November — the initial data on the site references the November 2013 election. Other information, such as monthly voter registration statistics, is updated more regularly. The site presents data in four major topic areas:

Creating the website involved two major tasks, getting access to the data for all 64 counties and putting it into a useful format.

“We knew from our own experience that some of the data was opaque and difficult to find. The financial information was the most difficult to get at and break down into digestible bits,” Cole said. “Yet this is among the most important for understanding how elections are being run.”

He noted that the state wanted to present the data in a useful format so that people who aren’t statisticians could look at it and come away with some real value.

The state spent about $10,000 for the software program license and there will be a fee of a few thousand dollars each year to maintain the software. As for manpower, there were two employees who handled the bulk of the work over the past year to create ACE, although there were several other employees involved as well.

So far, the reactions to ACE have been overwhelmingly positive although Stewart does have some suggestions for what might make the site better for everyone, from the residents of Colorado to the elections geeks.

“If I were asked for advice about the ACE site, I would encourage Colorado to present the data on a per capita basis, or to do other things to ‘normalize’ the data, to take into account the fact that the underlying populations of the various counties cover such a large range,” Stewart said.

Cole said that the state has already scheduled improvements and will continue to add data.

“We will also evaluate the response to ACE and suggestions for improvement from the public,” Cole said. “This will certainly include additional information that can help Coloradans understand how their elections are administered. We anticipate that ACE will continually improve.”

Each state is different of course, but Cole believes ACE is something that could easily be replicated nationwide.

“The resources we dedicated to this project were a fraction of the resources in our elections division. We believe it was well worth the increased transparency for the people of Colorado,” Cole said. “If state election officials have a strong desire to create something like this, it is within reach.”

And Stewart believes those officials with a strong desire are out there and that ACE will just be the tip of the iceberg.

“There is a new generation of election officials coming along that recognizes that if we are to improve election administration, we need to start describing the business of elections in the same way we describe the business of government more generally,” Stewart said. “It is many of these administrators who are pushing for things like ACE.”