“Election Data Is Vital to Voting Rights. So Why Is It So Hard to Track Down?”


And the problem extends far beyond New York. Precinct-level election data underpins a world of election analyses. It’s a foundation for Voting Rights Act lawsuits throughout the country. Proving how badly maps are gerrymandered is impossible without this data, since it’s needed to assess districts’ partisanship. It’s also used to make all sorts of mapsgraphics and tools of neighborhood partisan trends. And combining precinct partisanship data with demographic, geographic and income data is used to address a wide range of political science questions, including showing that voter fraud claims in the 2020 election were unfounded

Yet there is no entity in the United States that records election returns or maintains boundary maps for the country’s 180,000 precincts. Many states don’t even provide this data for the full collection of precincts within their borders. Instead, universities, newsrooms, nonprofits and volunteers collectively spend thousands of hours after every major election gathering it themselves. 

It’s a Herculean task for organizations that are often short on time and resources, and leaves the people who need precinct data at the mercy of individual county or local election offices whose data quality varies drastically. It also burdens underfunded election officials who are inundated with repeated requests for the same data. …

Some states make this process a lot easier than others. For example, Minnesota’s secretary of state’s office posts the entire state’s precinct-level election results together on its website; it also provides digital maps of precinct boundaries, called shapefiles

The variation between states was captured in dramatic visual form in a project published by The New York Times after the 2020 election. A team of journalists, data scientists, and developers set out to produce a map of U.S. precincts, color-coded by how each voted. 

Four states on the map—Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana, and Virginia—are completely blank, as are large swaths of Idaho, Missouri, Kentucky, and Louisiana.

It took The Times three months of full-time data and software development work to assemble the data after the election, plus months of preparation ahead of election night, according to Miles Watkins, who helped manage the project. “As of when we published the nationwide map, I feel pretty confident that we were using every single piece of open data or FOIA-able information that we could,” he told Bolts. But even with that effort, one of the best-staffed publications in the nation wasn’t able to obtain the data to complete the map. 

Ultimately, over 10 percent of all votes cast in the election weren’t pictured in the map.

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