The Price of OpenElections

December 25, 2015

As we wrap up OpenElections’ work in 2015, we’d like to give you an update on how we’ve spent not only our time but also the money that we’ve gotten, particularly from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight News Challenge. Most of that money that we’ve spent since mid-2013 has gone to salaries for our project manager and a single developer. Neither of the project’s co-founders has been paid for working on OpenElections, and we’ve tried to keep our operations pretty lean.

While our initial grant funding from Knight is nearly exhausted, we’ve made good progress and will keep going. In the past few months we’ve added a few more states (Louisiana, Missouri and Virginia) and we have volunteers working on Wisconsin, Georgia and Oregon, among others. We’ve revised our volunteer documentation to make it easier to understand what we’re doing and how you can help.

In most states, getting county-level data isn’t too much of a problem; that data is usually available online, if not always in native electronic formats. County-level data is usually freely available as well, but we’ve always wanted to develop a resource that can offer precinct-level results where they are available. Here’s why: while counties can be homogenous, precincts are even more distinct and smaller political units and lend themselves to more sophisticated analysis. Candidates and their campaigns care about precinct results. Journalists and researchers should do the same.

Some states make precinct-level data available for free, which is a great service to the public. They include Louisiana, Maryland, Wyoming, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, among others. Some states, like Pennsylvania, Colorado and Utah, charge a nominal fee for precinct results. But for other states, precinct results are only available county-by-county, and that takes both time and money. We’ve written about Oregon in the past, and we’d like to offer it as an example of the price of precinct results.

The bad news is that it’s not uniform, even within a state. In Oregon we’ve spent more than $1,000 to obtain precinct-level results covering elections 2000-2014, although in many cases we don’t have all of those years. Some counties literally don’t have results to give us before 2010. Crook County was unable to find precinct results for the 2010 general and 2012 primary elections, while a number of counties don’t have elections from before 2008. In other cases, price was a factor: we’ll only have precinct results for 2010-2014 from Tillamook County because the clerk there charged us $222.75 for results for those years. Lake County charges $50 an hour for pulling the results files and another $0.25 a page for copying them. We’ve yet to receive those results, so we don’t know what the final cost for Lake will be.

The good news is that when we do request election results that aren’t freely available online, we’re posting them on our Github site in state-specific repositories. That way other organizations or individuals won’t have to repeat our processes and/or pay for results that we’ve already gotten. We want you to use what we’ve gathered, whether that’s CSV files or original PDFs. That’s our holiday gift to you. We’ll be back at it in 2016, when there are more elections coming up, we hear.