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A Year-Round Job
Elections, geography, and GIS

Question: What do governments that manage elections, voters who participate in elections, candidates who seek election,and the media that cover elections have in common?

Answer: Geography

Elections are not static or isolated events. Managing elections is not just about drawing precinct lines or generating maps, although both these activities are important. Fundamentally, managing elections is about the geographic relationship of voters' addresses, street segments, and precinct and district boundaries. Maintaining this relationship is an ongoing process because election data constantly changes. Voters move, addresses change when new streets are built or old ones renumbered, boundaries must be adjusted as populations shift, and polling place locations must be optimized periodically.

Initially, GIS was used to take precincting and redistricting from a paper process to a more accurate and rapid digital one. However, voter management information was often maintained in tabular databases separately from spatial data on precincting and redistricting. Updates to spatial data had to be synchronized with tabular voter information.

The next step in applying GIS to the election process involved allowing editing of the geometry and attributes of precincts and districts through a map interface. This combined data maintenance with map production, resulting in enhanced currency and less redundancy. It also improved decision making by making voter and boundary information easier to evaluate. In addition to maintaining the data required for elections, GIS was also applied to the logistics of holding elections by assisting with activities such as delivering voting machines and staffing polling places.

In recent years, governments have been tasked with safeguarding political conventions. A major aspect of any presidential campaign in the United States, conventions are attractive targets for terrorists. GIS has been used for preplanning response to threats and disruptions and identifying areas that must be secured. In 2004, GIS helped federal agents, law enforcement, and homeland security officials enhance security for political conventions held in New York City, New York, and Boston, Massachusetts. It will be used again for the 2008 Democratic Party Convention in Denver, Colorado.

Getting Out the Vote

When information on who is running, what the issues are, and where polling places are located is readily available, voter turnout is higher. "When the elections are more convenient, we have a greater poll. In addition, our GIS Internet application has significantly reduced the number of calls that our office receives," said Michael Dickerson, director of the Board of Elections for Mecklenberg County, North Carolina. "The public can now use the Web to determine where their polling location is and how to get there."

Strategies for increasing participation and inclusion have been written into law. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) requires an up-to-date statewide voter registration system, a more accurate and usable balloting system, and an Internet-based voter education system. GIS provides a framework for fulfilling all these requirements. Geocoding voter addresses ensures the accuracy of voter records. Interfacing a GIS-based voter database with voting machines that record votes can confirm that each voter has cast one (and only one) vote at the correct polling place. Information on districts, polling places, and local election results are all determined by the voter's address.

GIS voter information applications predate HAVA requirements. Maricopa County in Arizona has had a GIS-based voter information and polling place locator available online for more than five years. As part of its robust enterprise GIS, Mecklenburg, North Carolina, identifies and routes voters to polling places. In addition to a polling place locator, the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters in California makes locating information on any or all electoral districts a simple one-step process.

Voter information now extends to election results reporting. Washoe County, Nevada, began using a live online application to deliver election results by neighborhood and precinct and help scholars and political analysts study voting patterns. The 2006 Washoe County Live Election Mapping Web site dynamically tracked election results and was used by the media, political parties, and candidates as well as the public. Improving voter turnout is also a concern of candidates and their campaign managers. Understanding voter demographics and social trends using GIS helps manage campaign logistics and plan campaign expenditures.

What's Behind the Ballot Count

With increasing access to digital data and powerful GIS tools for analyzing and integrating data, journalists have new ways of reporting elections. By incorporating demographic data with election boundaries and results, reporters can investigate aspects of the electoral process such as disparities in representation or irregularities in redistricting.

Promoting Fair and Open Elections

A project by the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), the Carter Center, and the University of Calgary is using GIS to analyze the effects of media on access to political information during elections. Mapping the Media—Political Finance in the Americas hopes to promote political financial reforms. Maps of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay depict which types of media reach voters who owns those media outlets as well as voter characteristics such as native languages, socieoeconomic status, and education levels.

"In this way, citizens can participate in regulation of political finance that will reveal the linkages between donors, candidates, parties, and the media and thereby reduce undue influence over politicians," observed Dr. Shelley McConnell, senior associate director of the Carter Center's Americas Program. "In addition, the maps will enable small and independent parties to identify the media that reach each constituency, thereby allowing them to target their media messages and recruit effectively at a lower cost. Money will matter less in electoral outcomes."

The Geography of Elections

Ongoing processes and activities associated with elections are undeniably tied to geography. Consequently, GIS is the most efficient technology for handling not just redistricting and precincting but also all the other aspects of elections: managing the logistics of holding elections, supplying information to voters both before and after an election, and analyzing the results of elections.

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