ArcWatch: Your e-Magazine for GIS News, Views, and Insights

December 2008

Governments and a Maryland Congressman Use Maps to Help Citizens Get to the Polls and Better Understand Issues

Online GIS Services Provide Election Information to Voters

By Chris Thomas, Esri Government Industry Solutions Manager

Few voters may know the name of the technology, but GIS helped many of them get to the polls in San Bernardino County, California, and Maricopa County, Arizona, on November 4, 2008. Both counties offer GIS-based polling place locators on their registrar of voters' Web sites, making it convenient for voters to find their proper polling place. All voters need to do is log on to the site and type in where they live and within seconds, back comes the address of the polling place along with a map showing how to get there.

The San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters office began to use GIS to provide this information in the 1990s and continues to improve the way it uses GIS to deliver election-related information to the public. In San Bernardino, residents can now type in their address on the Registrar of Voters Web site to see a GIS-based map of their polling place along with its address, handicap accessibility, a sample ballot, and information pamphlet. Maricopa County offers another example of a GIS-based online polling place locator.

GIS was first used to map polling places more than a decade ago, but as technology improves, governments are delivering more sophisticated GIS services. In addition to making polling place information available on the Internet, governments like San Bernardino are also using GIS-based technology to help citizens find the political districts in which they reside. Type in an address in San Bernardino's District Lookup application and a map will appear with a list of the districts the address falls in such as congressional, school, senatorial, and assembly.

Elected officials also are using GIS to assist voters. Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland offers an excellent implementation on his Web site He uses GIS to help residents familiarize themselves with their precincts. The GIS-based map on his Web site shows precinct boundaries, polling locations, precinct captains, contact information, and the number of volunteers.

Citizens also are asking their elected officials and registrar of voters' offices more in-depth questions that can, in part, be answered using GIS-based technology. In addition to wanting to know where they need to go to vote and who their representatives are, they want to know about voting patterns and additional information on how issues they are voting on will affect them. Governments can use GIS Web services, for example, to show citizens the areas that would be impacted if a bond measure related to a proposed high-speed train line were to pass by their city or home. This is a way to give the public the knowledge it needs to understand complicated issues. To satisfy the desire to learn about voting patterns, governments like the City of College Station, Texas, now offer GIS maps that show past voting patterns.

Future uses of GIS can continue to improve on current election services. GIS can be used to deliver the local information people are seeking such as voter turnout in their areas and demographic data about voters. GIS can help election departments deliver that information in an easily accessible way online.

As the next generation of computer-savvy voters starts to cast ballots, it will be increasingly important to format online GIS for smartphones and in-vehicle navigation systems. Polling place locators can evolve, for example, to deliver driving directions to someone en route to vote.

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