States ‘less than halfway’ in implementing GIS in elections

January 30, 2019  - By

United States’ election directors are interested, but “less than halfway,” in terms of implementing GIS to strengthen the nation’s electoral system

The National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC) has released its findings from its first survey of state election directors, seeking to determine the current status of the implementation of GIS in elections.

A number of states have championed the use of this technology in recent years to strengthen the accuracy and reliability of their electoral systems. NSGIC’s Geo-Enabled Elections project was created to assist states and other election authorities in this process.

According to the new Election Director Report, state election directors indicate knowledge and interest in GIS technology. However, the report’s findings also suggest that most states have a long way to go to fully utilize geospatial information in elections.

Do you have access to GIS maps and shapefiles for each of your voting districts from a government source? (Image: NSGIC)

Do you have access to GIS maps and shapefiles for each of your voting districts from a government source? (Image: NSGIC)

Five out of six election directors interviewed stated that they are familiar with GIS and have access to a GIS expert. However, fewer than one in three could say with confidence that their voter registration system is capable of supporting GIS data.

Moreover, when asked to assess their state’s degree of progress towards full integration of geospatial data in elections, the answer was four, on average, on a scale from 1 to 10, where 10 represented full GIS integration.

“We’re very encouraged by the interest and enthusiasm we’ve encountered among election directors,” said Molly Schar, NSGIC executive director. “Few state election offices in the United States are fully GIS integrated. However, election directors, on the whole, are motivated to deploy the technology to increase accuracy and gain efficiencies in their election data management processes.”

Why does using geospatial data offer a critical advantage to electoral systems? In short, it ensures that the right ballot is given to the right voter so that voters’ voices are heard in the right electoral contests. Recently, some well-publicized errors in voter placement have undermined the reliability of election results and may have hurt voter confidence.

Additionally, replacing cumbersome voter lists and verbal definitions of voting districts with technology that allows election officials to view voters as pinpoints on a map — and voting district boundaries as geometrical shapes that surround those pinpoints — offers some very concrete advantages.

The verification that voters have, in fact, been placed into the right voting district becomes much easier, as does quality control — both as part of a periodic review and after significant changes, such as the modification of voting district boundaries.

Currently, many states use GIS technology for other matters, such as emergency response systems, land use, or utility management, and often have a Geographic Information Officer (GIO) within state government. Part of the Geo-Enabled Elections project’s mission is to promote a stronger dialogue between GIOs and election directors in state government.

The project’s next steps for furthering the use of GIS in elections include six case studies from states already using GIS in elections, as well as five state-wide pilot studies among states working to expand their GIS integration, with the goal of delivering a set of best practices to support states wishing to start the process towards full GIS integration.

The Geo-Enabled Elections project, phase one, runs from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2019, with the aim to help strengthen electoral systems by supporting states in the adoption of GIS. Concretely, this means encouraging state governments to replace non-spatial ‘address file’ systems with election precinct and voter data in a GIS format, leveraging that format’s inherent visual and analytical advantages.