Archives For FOIA

The Oregon Paper Trail

June 14, 2015

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A few weeks ago, we began requesting precinct-level election results from counties in Oregon. The Secretary of State maintains county-level results, typically in electronic PDFs, so to get down to precinct level we need to ask county clerks across the state. Many of them post precinct results on their sites, but some don’t, so we emailed a few to ask for results from 2000-2014. In doing so, we were prepared to pay reasonable fees for them, as the Oregon Revised Statutes permit.

Local officials were quick to get back to us in every case, and their responses were straightforward. Here’s an example, from Art Harvey, the Josephine County clerk and recorder:

The reports you are interested in are available in PDF format.

The cost would be $10.00 per election.

Other counties charged fees ranging from $25 (Umatilla County) to $45 (Wasco County) to $86.50 (Linn County, which sent us paper print-outs of election results that we’ll be scanning). And then there’s Tillamook County, where Tassi O’Neil, the county clerk there, has set a price of $664 for PDF copies of precinct-level results for elections from 2000-2014.

We wondered how that price was calculated, so we asked. Ms. O’Neil responded:

The fee for each election is $3.75 locate fee and then .25 cents per page.  That is the fee if it is a paper copy or if we send it in a PDF.  That is the charge that the Oregon Revised Statues say that we can/or should charge.

That is true, but there are two points here: One is that members of the public are being charged for pages of an electronic document. There are no paper copies involved here. The other is that the Oregon Revised Statutes also say this:

The custodian of any public record may furnish copies without charge or at a substantially reduced fee if the custodian determines that the waiver or reduction of fees is in the public interest because making the record available primarily benefits the general public.

As OpenElections is a non-profit effort dedicated to publishing machine-readable election results that can be freely used by anyone, we’re pretty sure that our project primarily benefits the general public. We’ve asked for such a waiver or reduction of the $664 and are awaiting a reply. Oregon law also permits us to appeal a denial of a fee waiver or reduction to the Attorney General, and we will be pursuing that option should it become necessary.

In the meantime, we’ve been converting Oregon PDF results to CSVs and will continue to do so. There are plenty of ways for you to contribute to that effort, and we welcome any suggestions or advice on our dealings with Oregon officials.

Eric Mill - Avatar 2

By Eric Mill

The New York State Board of Elections publishes a large set of election results in a central place. Naturally, they are all PDFs. But these are especially frustrating PDFs:

I spent a few months trying in vain to find the right staffer who would post the rest of the Excel files, or at least tell me that there were no Excel files to publish. The furthest I got was a one-line, 3-week-delayed email from someone telling me they’d see what they could get for me, with no further response for months.

And so, inspired by Sandra Fish’s successful Wyoming public records request, I filed my own FOIL request with the Board of Elections, using their handy web form. I called their Public Information office first before filing, to ask what they thought of the request, and they offered no opinion other than to just go ahead and file it.

In my request on August 26, I asked for “any and all election results, between 1994 and 2012, that the New York State Board of Elections has in spreadsheet form (where the file format is one of: .XLS, .XLSX, .TSV, or .CSV).” and pointed to the existing Excel files for 2010 as an example.

The Director of Public Information is legally obligated to respond within 5 business days, but by September 11, I still hadn’t heard. After an email and two calls over the next few days, they emailed me all of 12 Excel files on September 16.

The spreadsheets they sent me are somewhat mystifying.

It’s not clear why I got a mix of spreadsheets that are currently available and unavailable, or why these were the only ones sent. Could they really have thrown away all of their other 2008 general election spreadsheets? Do they never use spreadsheets for primary or special elections?

The format for primary and special election results the NY Board of Elections publishes are in different formats than general elections, so perhaps these are managed differently (though they are still suspiciously tabular). But all of their general election results from 2008 onwards use the same format, clearly generated in the same manner.

And what about the spreadsheets they already publish for 2006? The 2004 general elections use the same format as 2006, but no spreadsheets are available.

Whether it’s secrecy or simply disarray, the New York Board of Elections could be doing a much better job at serving the public. I’ve filed another, more detailed FOIL request, this time by mail, with the Board of Elections to try to get to the heart of how election information flows through the state of New York. It shouldn’t take this much work: election results are data. The Board should publish them that way.


Eric Mill
builds software, writes on tech policy, and helps manage the Sunlight Foundation’s international program. 
His projects at Sunlight include Congress API, its government search and alert system Scout, and a Congress app for Android phones. He also leads Sunlight’s involvement in many of the projects at github.com/unitedstatesOutside of Sunlight, Eric runs a blog at konklone.com, and works on numerous open source projects at Github.

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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.