Where We Are, and Where We’re Going

By Derek Willis

OpenElections is nearly two years old, and we’re not nearly done yet. In most states we still have a lot of work to do.

As our initial funding from the Knight Foundation winds down, we wanted to provide an update on where the project is and our plans going forward. The first thing to know is this: OpenElections is here to stay. Our timetable has expanded, and we’re looking at other sources of money to boost our capacity to process election results data, but the work we’ve done so far and your interest in it has convinced us of the need.

When we started, Serdar and I had between us years of experience working with election results data in multiple formats. We both worked at news organizations that routinely dealt with different types of data and various election systems.

We still have been surprised by the diversity of results that we’ve found. States like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida have consistent and reliable data across time. Other states, like Arkansas, Colorado and Washington, have different formats and systems depending on the year. Then there are states like Mississippi and New York, which have required significant investments of time and effort.

In practice, that has meant a lot of work within individual states in order to load and process data from 2000 onward. Those efforts have taken more time than we anticipated, for two reasons. First, we have found that states have switched the systems and software they use to publish election results, in some cases multiple times in the past 15 years. We have found some abstractions – we released a separate library to handle states that use Clarity’s software – but in many cases this meant writing several different custom parsers for a single state.

Second, machine readable data is not a universal standard, and for many states it is a recent addition to their practices. This isn’t a criticism as much as it is a statement of reality. Officials from nearly every state we’ve been in contact with have been helpful and even supportive of the project. But we’re also not too far removed from all-paper elections, either.

In response to these factors, we’ve made some adjustments. The main one is to publish “raw” results data from states even before we standardize offices, candidates and parties. We think having election results in a fairly consistent format across a number of years is pretty useful, so we’re not going to wait until everything is done to release that. This week we’ve published raw results in North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania and (for recent elections) Mississippi. You can download these from our site or clone them from GitHub depending on your needs. We’ll continue to follow that path as we work on standardization.

Along the way we’ve been very fortunate to have had contributions from volunteers, who both gathered information about the state of election results and also contributed code to the project. We can’t thank all of you enough for your interest and contributions. This would be a much longer road without them, and we hope that you’ll stay involved.

We’d also like to recognize the people who have lived this project with us for most of the past two years. Geoff Hing has been the main point of contact for web development volunteers and has written the bulk of the code that powers the results loading and data display portions of the project. Geoff began a new job at The Chicago Tribune this week, although he’ll still be involved with OpenElections as a volunteer. We’re extremely grateful for his efforts.

Many more of you have emailed with or spoken to Sara Schnadt, the project manager for OpenElections. She’ll be with us through the end of the year as we plan our next steps, and her organizational skills, creative thinking and ability to wrangle two co-founders living on separate coasts has made OpenElections possible.

Investigative Reporters & Editors, a source of training and inspiration for journalists for decades, has made things easy for us by handling the accounting and grant management tasks. Both Serdar and I are proud to be “graduates” of IRE, and we’re thankful for their support of OpenElections.

The goal of OpenElections – to provide access to machine-readable, standardized election results – remains the same as when we began. The path to reach that goal is now a lot clearer than it was two years ago, and with your help we’ve learned a lot about how to get there. We’ll keep moving forward, and invite you to stay involved.