NSGIC’s Geo-Enabled Elections project brings together geographic information systems (GIS) leaders in state government, local elections officials and state elections offices, national GIS and elections organizations, and federal partners to identify opportunities to integrate GIS into elections systems across the country to strengthen elections management and citizen engagement.

Digital geographic representation of precinct boundaries within a GIS allow for transparency and ease of use for voters, candidates and electoral management. It also enables the optimal siting of polling places with respect to both voter access and the cost efficiency of operating polls. GIS also provides a platform for automated quality control processes that ensure accurate voter precinct assignments.

At the onset of this project, GIS technology, in most cases, is relatively new to state elections implementations, with several successful state implementations. When complete, a full GIS integration with a state election management system creates a map-based model of all the geographic features that interact in the election process and its results: district, precinct and ballot area boundaries; voter residence locations; polling places and drop-off locations; and address-based presentation of elected officials. The GIS digital model is expected to significantly enhance accuracy, transparency, and efficiency of our representative government.

FOR STATE GIS LEADERS, this project is an opportunity to bolster core GIS data assets, gain valued supporting resources and roles for your staff, and serve as a relationship and subject matter expertise-builder as your state explores implementing a geo-enabled elections platform. As we know at NSGIC, enterprise GIS for its own sake is never going to be as effective or well supported as enterprise GIS that actively connects to important state and local government functions. This is an opportunity for significant advancement of state GIS capabilities, including local government relationships, data aggregation and GIS web services.

FOR ELECTIONS OFFICIALS, this project will provide greater transparency, credibility and accuracy in your processes and results by cross-referencing address locations with important boundaries, residential parcels, roads and addressing, aerial photography and other data layers. Visualizing, analyzing, creating and updating spatial data are far easier and quicker using GIS. For example, with GIS layers for voter residences and precinct boundaries in place, checking or updating precincts for a county can take just seconds of computing time. This project will explore ways to engage voters, and highlight the critical role of elections officials in the elections process.

FOR VOTERS AND ORGANIZATIONS INTERESTED IN INCREASED ACCURACY AND TRANSPARENCY IN AMERICAN ELECTIONS, this project has the power, using technology, to provide citizens and organizations with increased confidence in the electoral process, setting into motion a positive cycle of continual voting and voter engagement. Our democracy relies on voter participation and every ballot being counted accurately. Modern election systems, data-driven policies, and new technologies help reduce barriers, improve integrity, and increase accuracy and transparency, giving the electorate trust and confidence in the electoral process.

In 2002, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was enacted, requiring states to establish and maintain a state elections database - among many other things. Grants supported the initial HAVA-mandated transition and most states used the state-of-the practice ‘address list’ approach to manage the assignment of voters to precincts. The address list approach required a statewide table of street names and address ranges that made up each precinct and was difficult to build and maintain, and did not align with other local or state government needs.

In an address list table, each row contains a street name and precinct to which a range of house numbers are assigned. As mentioned, the address list approach was extremely difficult to compile statewide, but one-time funding and local government assistance facilitated the compilation and early maintenance of this resource. Ongoing expansion and redevelopment of residential areas, together with occasional redefinition of precinct boundaries mean that this data resource is in need of constant care and feeding.

The use of GIS presents a substantial improvement to the traditional address list method for precinct management. This aligns the data needs with other local and state GIS data needs that are already in place, including public safety, transportation management and planning, sales tax lookup, and so on. In recent years, several states have transitioned their election precinct assignment process from the address list to an approach that relies on GIS data: a precise geographic location (x,y) for voter residences and polygons that depict precinct boundaries.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that a move from the address list approach to the GIS approach can provide significant gains in operational efficiency and data quality. Several states have made advancements in this area and some are publishing precinct boundary GIS data openly. Before the Geo-Enabled Elections project, there had been no organized effort to gather the experiences of states that have made this transition in order to develop and promote best practices.

A steering group of state GIS leaders is guiding the development of best practices focused around two map layers and related web services: residential address points and election precinct boundary polygons. These best practices will address both minimum GIS content standards and coordination with elections officials in local and state government.

ADDRESS POINTS. The best practices under development will provide guidance for developing and sustaining the capability to determine authoritative x,y coordinates for each voter residence. This means appropriately involving local GIS efforts and the city, county, and regional government levels, and putting in place a statewide geocoding service that uses address points and/or address range road centerlines as reference data. It also means using map technology within voter registration systems to allow election clerks to manually place or correct address locations against parcel data, aerial photography and other layers, and ideally, to have the verification and placement work provide feedback to the data stewards of the reference data.

PRECINCT BOUNDARY POLYGONS. Coordination of GIS data development and data sharing is the specialty of state GIS coordinators. The aggregation of statewide precinct mapping can play right into this strong suit.

Election precincts are the basic electoral unit for everything from party caucus meetings to tabulation and reporting of election results. Precincts have to be big enough to protect the privacy of individual voters, and usually there is a goal or stipulated maximum size for precincts, as well. Precincts generally align well with the boundaries for major elected offices, especially state offices. For elections management and the integration of GIS, a finer-grained area - the sub-precinct (or precinct split) - is also necessary. Sub-precincts manage all of the fine-grained boundary details within an election system. Think of these as the polygons that determine what combination of candidates and issues are on the ballot given to each voter. Sub-precincts can take into account things like school board districts, local sewer districts, or water board boundaries. These types of boundaries often diverge from the major district boundaries and each other so much that, when overlaid, the resulting unique areas might only have a handful of voters in them.

In another example, a line state house district might have been drawn along a city boundary in 2011, but since then, a few lots have been annexed into the city along that line. The city council boundary is immediately adjusted, but, likely, the state house boundary stays put unless redrawn by the state legislature.

In summary, for states without those layers and services available, this project supports the articulation of the need, refines a plan toward their creation and, potentially identifies powerful allies to champion the cause. This applies, as well, to states that are “almost there” and need a boost toward completion or refinement.

While there is no national requirement to integrate GIS into state election system management, the advantages in terms of efficiency, quality control, and engagement should be attractive to state election officials. The key is to develop a communication strategy that will allow the project to connect decision-makers to the overall proposition, including the component parts, expertise, the processes for transition and continued life-cycle management, and the level of effort to implement and sustain a GIS-enabled elections system. Similarly, the project team will work to ensure that election officials and state GIS leaders are primed to establish connections with one another for productive discussion of what an GIS implementation would look like in their state and how their respective cohorts, at the state and local levels, can best move forward collaboratively.

NSGIC State Representatives Baseline Survey Report

Geo-Enabled Elections Year One Report

  • Inventory of state implementations of GIS-based elections systems

  • Workshops and plenary sessions held at NSGIC’s 2018 Midyear Meeting in Salt Lake City, UT, and 2018 Annual Conference in Duluth, MN, as well as an additional workshop and virtual workshop TBD

  • Interviews with elections officials

  • Five pilot programs

  • Best practices guide

  • Geo-Enhanced Elections Summit

  • Multimedia presentation/tool site for geo-enhanced elections

Learn more through GeoJava updates

Midyear Meeting Takeaways for the Geo-Enabled Elections Project (March 19, 2018)

Geo-Enabled Elections Project Gathers Momentum (January 23, 2018)

Visit the Geo-Enabled Elections discussion forums. (See below about logging in.)

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Steering Group:

Bert Granberg (UT) - Chair

Dan Ross (MN)

Josh Tanner (OR)

Neil MacGaffey (MA)

Kenneth Nelson (KS)

Shelby Johnson (AR)

Erin Fashoway (MT)

Ekaterina Fitos (FL)

Circle of Advisors:

Kimball Brace (Washington D.C.)

Veronica DeGraffenreid (NC)

John Dziurlaj (OH)

Royce Jones (HI)

Tammy Patrick (Washington D.C.)

Paul Stenbjorn (VA)

Sarah Whitt (WI)

Jennifer Morrell (CO)

Project Manager:

Jamie Chesser (NSGIC) - [email protected]

The two-year project launched in October 2017. NSGIC gratefully acknowledges project underwriting by the Democracy Fund Voice.