Geography matters: If first responders can’t find a house, a life may be lost. Hence, Next Generation 911 (aka NextGen 911), a system that includes “geo-coding” addresses so there’s no doubt where, exactly, 384 Elm St. is. It’s a precise dot defined by a set of coordinates.
Geography matters for voting, as well. Districts are defined by lines on a map, and voters are assigned to school districts, congressional districts and legislative districts based on where their residence sits. The most common practice for assigning voters to districts relies on street addresses. However, 12% or more of voters are assigned to the wrong precincts, says Kim Brace of Election Data Services. That’s because an address is just an approximation of a geographic area, and such things as cul-de-sacs and meandering streams make lists of addresses imprecise.
So, how do we ensure that each voter votes on the right contests, based on where they live? By geo-coding residences, the same fix that NexGen 911 uses. States adopting NextGen 911 for safety reasons may find that this is a rare public policy opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Note, though, that first responders need to know where the driveway is, whereas election officials need to know where the rooftop is.
Being assigned to the wrong precinct doesn’t necessarily mean that 1 in 8 voters gets the wrong ballot. But sometimes they do, and sometimes there are electoral consequences. Here are three examples:
- In 2017, a Virginia state legislative race was declared a tie, and the winner’s name was picked out of a bowl. The race was particularly important because it affected the balance of power in the Virginia House of Delegates. Had the Democrat in the race won, the House would have been split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans. But the winner of the lottery was a Republican, and thus Republicans narrowly held onto power in the House of Delegates. A later analysis of the race showed that election officials erred by placing more than two dozen voters in the wrong legislative district—enough to sway the very close race.
- In 2010, Representative Craig Frank (R-Utah) was reelected to the state House, a post he had held since 2003, only to find out that he didn’t actually live in the district he was elected to represent. Frank had relocated to a new home in 2009, which he believed to be in the same district based on the state maps he consulted. But there was a discrepancy between the state and county maps that had occurred after the 2000 redistricting process, and, according to the county lines, he no longer lived in the same district. He had to vacate the seat when the discrepancy was found.
- In 2019, a Greenville, N.C., city council candidate John Landrine learned at the polling booth that he did not live in the district he was running to represent. This summer, Landrine had successfully filed to run in Greenville’s District 2, but an audit conducted by the Pitt County Board of Elections after the filing period found that he actually lived in District 1. The even side of Landrine’s street resides in District 1, the odd in District 2, but this street had been coded incorrectly for 20 years. The board has passed a motion to prevent future audits between candidate filing and an election, though Landrine’s candidacy has been declared invalid.
That’s not all. “The state voter registration database has two-thirds of the adult population, so this is your citizen management system,” says Richard Leadbeater of Esri. “This is the start of everything.” The errors, he says, are usually manual: It’s hard to input data accurately. And it’s not possible to do quality control if there is no Geographic Information Systems (GIS) system to compare the data to. So, “just the update and correctness of the voter registration files is a huge benefit” of moving to GIS-based elections, says Leadbeater. That means using GIS technology in local election offices.
Now is a particularly good time to make the shift, with redistricting to start in 2021. States are almost uniformly using GIS for redistricting this decade, but they aren’t necessarily sharing their new districts through GIS—largely because state and local election officials may not have the capacity to receive it that way.
Either way, boundary management, from drawing congressional and legislative districts down to “precincting,” is geographically driven. (Yes, that’s a verb for election officials, used to describe redefining precincts as population shifts and boundaries for districts are redrawn.)
In the 1980s and prior, precincting was done by hanging a county map on a wall and drawing lines. When new voters came in, their address was ballparked on the map, and that’s how they were assigned to vote. Then came computers and spreadsheets, and the action moved off the wall and into “street files” that might show “200–350 Elm St., even numbers” in one precinct, and “201–351 Elm St., odd numbers” in another.
Why does it matter? Accuracy in elections—getting the right ballot to the right voter—is a good enough reason. “These days, if someone gets the wrong ballot, they’re likely to think the election has been hacked,” said Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s state election director, at the August Elections GeoSummit. Fewer oopses improve voter confidence.
Is your state using “street files” that are stored locally? You may need to ask your local election official, and the answer is probably yes—if so, your state is among the majority. A shift is underway as one state after another starts to move from street files to geocoding.
Utah is one of the leaders of the pack. The use of GIS in other parts of the state government was growing in the lead up to the 2010 census, and the Lieutenant Governor’s Office (the state-level office in charge of elections in Utah) saw the potential of GIS to help with the decennial redistricting process.
The Lieutenant Governor’s Office assembled a team of professionals from various branches of government (something now identified as a best practice) to integrate GIS features into the elections process. Utah worked with counties to create and confirm maps and integrate them into the statewide voter registration database in time for the 2012 elections. The data has gotten more and more accurate as time has gone on, and the state hasn’t had problems with wrong addresses or inaccurate precinct information in recent years (more on Utah’s story here).
Washington is also leading the way with GIS. The state went live with VoteWA this year, a replacement for its street files and much more. The secretary of state’s office helped the smaller counties get up to speed with the bigger ones by going to visit every county. Because it is a statewide project, when new district lines are drawn with redistricting, it will be immediately clear what districts every voter is in. No need for a manual process at the county level.
In North Carolina, the move to GIS started eight years ago. Many county boards of elections audited their voter files, which were based on street files, by comparing them to new e911 records, which were based on geocoding. The result: Lots of errors were found and lots of cleanup has been done.
Other states are in the process of changing to “geo-enabled elections,” a phrase based on a newish nationwide effort to bring GIS to the election world. According to Jared Dearing, the executive director of Kentucky’s State Board of Elections, “maps are the backbone of democracy,” and Kentucky is part of the project.
Election officials, not legislators, will do the work to move elections to a GIS-based system. And yet, legislators set policy and provide guidance. So what, exactly, can lawmakers do? The Canvass asked participants at the Elections GeoSummit this question. Here are answers from election administrators:
- A state could require GIS for all local maps submitted to the state. For example, Virginia recently enacted S 1018/H 2760, which requires the use of GIS to create maps for redistricting or making any changes to local election districts or precincts. The caveat from the administrators: Please don’t pass any unfunded mandates and note that state-level officials may have to help localities make the transition, as was the case in Washington.
- While the state’s chief election official may be able to write policies requiring local jurisdictions to report “voting units” (such as political subdivisions and precinct boundaries) to a state GIS office, the legislature can require data sharing. In 2017, Oregon created a state geographic information council and a geographic information officer responsible for all geographic information and geospatial framework data, including for elections.
- Consider asking for current precinct data a couple of times a year. The voter registration system, the county GIS system and the legislature need to work on it together. In Arkansas, the county clerk is required to submit written, printed and digital copies of the map and boundaries to the secretary of state and Arkansas Geographic Information Systems Office within 30 days of any changes (A.C.A. § 7-5-101).
- Find out if your legislature is the official keeper of district maps. In Kentucky, the Legislative Research Council by law holds all the state’s local district maps.
- Connect your NextGen911 experts, who are more likely to have funding for geocoding, with your election officials. Good things may come from collaboration.
- Investigate your state’s GIS capabilities. In Wisconsin, the Legislative Technology Services Bureau has an amazing array of offerings for legislators and beyond. Most state GIS offices can be found through the National States Geographic Information Council.
- Once you have partners in the executive branch willing to collaborate on developing or sharing geocoding, the state may need to provide funding for the technology and development of the project. Note that counties are often the weak link in any new tech-based project and may be struggling with old computers and little internet capacity.
- Check your statutes. Are there prohibitions on sharing information between state agencies, such as emergency offices and election offices, that might stand in the way?
- Think about timing. Right now, with so much emphasis rightly placed on election security, it may be hard to ask state election officials to take on more. “It’s great if our elections are secure, but if the right person doesn’t get the right ballot? That’s a problem,” says Wayne Bena, Nebraska’s state election director.
- Perhaps most important of all: Think about timing again. With redistricting around the corner, and an emphasis on GIS in the states for that purpose, working out the data handshake between redistricters and election officials could make re-precincting before the 2022 election a breeze. More importantly, it could mean far fewer oopses.