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electionlineWeekly — May 19, 2016

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I. In Focus This Week

Virginia Election Data Project
Project provides tool to ID strengths and challenges in local elections offices

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This week, the Virginia Department of Elections released the Virginia Election Data Project, a cooperative effort between the department and local registrars with assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts Election Initiatives.

The project analyzes election and voter data provided to the Department by local election offices and presents the data visualized in a user-friendly online format.

“Like most election offices, we house a huge amount of data,” explained Edgardo Cortes, commissioner of elections. “While much of it is personal information that needs to be kept securely, there are ways we can be transparent about the data related to election processes to help the public understand election administration better. This is a way for us to use objective data to improve how we administer elections by figuring out best practices and sharing them across the state.”

The department created a working group of local election officials to provide feedback and guidance during development of the project. The working group consisted of Tammy Alexander, electoral board member, City of Petersburg; April Cain, electoral board member, Henrico County; Lisa Jeffers, director of elections, City of Waynesboro; Bill Lewis, electoral board member, City of Hampton; Margaret Marcenelle, electoral board member, Mecklenburg County; John Nunnaly, electoral board member, Caroline County; Donna Patterson, general registrar, City of Virginia Beach; Greg Riddlemoser, director of elections, Stafford County; and Allison Robbins, director of elections, Wise County.

“This project provides a useful tool for identifying strengths and challenges in local election offices.  We are building on the long history of working together as an election community to identify ways to better serve our voters,” Donna Patterson, City of Virginia Beach general registrar and a member of the working group, said in a statement.

The idea to partner with Pew came from Pew’s Election Performance Index and wanting to undertake a similar project but at the state level.

Before starting this project, the team at Pew knew that Virginia had exemplary election data and the state makes a lot of it available to the public on their website. But they also knew that making data public isn’t enough to influence policy change or inform the public.

“In Virginia’s case, unless someone had the software and skills to analyze the data that they posted to their website then it was not easy to interpret,” explained Heather Creek, research officer with Pew. “In order to make the data useful to local election officials, legislators, the media, and the public, Edgardo and James [Alcorn, chairman of the State Board of Elections] wanted to create interactive visuals to compare metrics over time and across jurisdictions.”

The technical assistance provided by Pew was free and the only costs involved for the department were the time and effort by existing staff.

The data gathered will help the department and general registrars prepare for November 2016 and beyond. The department and the SBE will use this data to identify general registrars with the best election administration practices and share them across the state. 

“I think the most surprising was related to voter registration and how people are choosing to register,” Cortes said. “For the first time ever, voters are registering more through our online registration tool than through the DMV.  That is a huge change in how Virginia voters interact with the process and is indicative of a shift to conducting election related transactions online.” 

The data also shows registration activity is higher during the first part of this year than it was in 2012, suggesting the state needs to prepare for increased registration activity this year.

Cortes added that the apparent shift to online transactions is definitely bringing changes to local elections offices and will lead to how offices are staffed, how file systems are maintained, and other election office operations.

Creek said that review election administration within a state can tell a more nuanced story about what’s happening.

“For instance, in the EAVS the state reports the number of absentee ballots that were cast, but their system also includes data on the date that an absentee ballot request was received from a potential voter and the date that the local elections staff processed that request and mailed the ballot,” Creek explained. “By knowing the variation in absentee ballot processing times across jurisdictions, the state can learn from the practices of the most efficient jurisdictions and offer guidance to jurisdictions that might need support.”

While Pew is working with several other states to assess their local election data, develop metrics that will help them make policy and administrative decisions, and visualize the data in a way that makes it transparent to the public and useable by local election officials, this is the first project that has been publicly released.

“Some states that we’re working with already have a well-organized, central election database and just need some guidance on the process of developing and visualizing metrics,” Creek said. “Other states have asked us to work with them on evaluating their election data to identify areas where they can standardize data collection practices across their local jurisdictions and improve data management and reporting as a precursor to developing useable metrics.”

Creek said Pew is open to discussing this work with any state that is interested, whatever the nature of their election data.

“Analyzing and visualizing election data has a number of benefits. Tracking metrics over time creates a baseline so that officials can measure the impact of policy and budget changes. They can also identify potential problem areas and head them off before they become crises (or lawsuits),” Creek said.

This type of project can inform conversations between election officials and legislators, as well as local budget authorities, so that policy and budgets are evidence-based. It is also a tool, Creek noted, that empowers local election officials, many of which do not have the staff or software to conduct regular data analysis, to track trends in their jurisdictions. They can use this data to evaluate their administrative operations, increase efficiency, and improve customer service.

And Cortes would recommend it to any state that is not already analyzing their data at this level.

“Election offices should find creative ways to use the data they have available to inform the public and policy makers about election administration and increase transparency to help build confidence in the election process,” Cortes said.