A Western Election Data Quest

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By Sandra Fish

Gathering information about election results in the 50 states can be tricky business. There are at least 50 different ways states collect and put out this data – and probably more.

Working on a few Western states makes me love Idaho, where spreadsheets with results for every county by precinct are available back to 1990.

Go Idaho!

But in almost every instance, it pays to reach out and ask questions. A quick phone call to state board of elections staffers usually gets a suggestion to send an email with those questions. In Idaho, for instance, we needed details about primaries. The state first had a closed primary just last year, and we needed verification that all primaries back to 2000 were open.

In other instances, it’s worth contacting the state board of elections and seeking out the information behind the PDFs that so many states are seeking. I’ve used the list of questions Serdar Tumgoren put together.

Consider Wyoming, where Excel results are available for 2010 and 2012 but the other years are PDFs.

When asked what software they used to compile results, Wyoming officials replied, “Excel.” When asked if they’d make Excel files available, this was the initial response: “No, Our office has a policy to offer the results in PDF format on-line only.”

Time for a public records request?

So I headed over to the automatic letter generator offered by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Like Idaho, it rocks! I wrote the letter, downloaded, and pasted it in an email to my contact in Wyoming on June 29. They replied July 8.

On July 12, they emailed me the zipped files.

Hooray, public records requests!

There are a few hangups – the 2006 files are corrupt, so the PDF files will have to do. And the 2000 files were made with QuatroPro, a spreadsheet program you youngsters won’t be familiar with. But I suspect a little googling will turn up a conversion answer. So I’m well on my way!

Happy metadata (and data) gathering!

Sandra Fish is an experienced independent journalist based in Boulder, Colorado, specializing in politics, government and data reporting.