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Strengthening Our Democracy: Science-Based Recommendations to Improve Election Data Transparency 


 The Equation Read More 

No democracy is perfect, but experts are increasingly worried that the United States is actively backsliding. Long-standing inequities in access to the polls are being exacerbated by restrictive voting laws, disinformation, and efforts to intimidate voters and election administrators away from the process. We need to build a healthier, more equitable democracy, and the first step is improving election data transparency.  

Good data is fundamental to the effort to build a healthier democracy. It’s how we know what’s working and what isn’t in our electoral process—we can’t identify problems and craft effective solutions unless we have good evidence. And election data belongs to the public—every voter deserves to know their vote will be counted. Clear, transparent election data will help build public trust, counter disinformation, encourage participation, and help voters hold their elected officials accountable. Today, the availability of election data varies across states and counties, but there are common-sense, evidence-based ways to make sure this information is accessible to the public. 

A new white paper from the Center for Science and Democracy, “Recommendations for Improving Election Data Transparency,” explores current election data transparency policies across Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The analysis focuses on three components of election data transparency—voter file maintenance; ballot processing; and ballot curing, auditing, and certification. We offer science-based recommendations that state and local election officials and administrators can implement to make our elections more transparent.

Along with this white paper, we’re also releasing an Election Data Transparency Fact Sheet that highlights the importance of increasing election data transparency as well as a few of our election science recommendations.  

Voter files are digital databases of information about a state’s registered voters. Maintaining these lists is critical to ensuring that every eligible voter is able to successfully vote in an election. If voter lists are inaccurate or poorly managed, voters can be wrongfully turned away and excluded from elections.  

The US Election Assistance Commission classifies each state’s voter file access as open, mixed, or restricted. Open states allow anyone to obtain voter files data, though some open states do require payment. In mixed states certain individuals and organizations can generally obtain the data. Lastly, restricted states completely restrict access to specific types of people and organizations. Thirty states are open, sixteen mixed, and four restricted.  

Washington is an open state and doesn’t require any payment. Pennsylvania, also an open state where anyone can get the state’s voter files, requires $20. But not all open states have such low prices for this data—Alabama demands $37,000 and Nevada $20,000 to purchase voter files.  

On top of being helpful to campaigns and community organizers, these files can help organizations like UCS and other organizations focused on improving democracy in the United States research and monitor elections. For example, complete voter files that include information on ballot rejection rates with reasons for those rejections allow us to make sure votes aren’t wrongly tossed out, track racial inequalities in rejection rates, and identify counties with irregularities.  

Moreover, effective voter registration list maintenance can reduce wait times, voter confusion, and the casting of provisional ballots (a ballot used when a voter’s registration status is at question when they go to vote on Election Day, which may or may not be counted).

Updated and effectively maintained voter registration lists also help election officials and administrators properly prepare for elections and protect the integrity of our elections. By seeing the names of registered voters, we can monitor attempts to purge voters. While names need to be removed from voter lists when people move, die, or become ineligible to vote for other reasons, too often voters are wrongly kicked off voter rolls because there is no standardized process for how states should maintain their voter lists. One analysis found that over 8.6 million voters were purged from voter lists across the country between November 2020 and July 2021. More troubling was the fact that a large majority of counties with the most aggressive purges during this period disproportionately removed people of color.  

Just this month, Ohio voters in Columbus had their registrations canceled. In total, about 2 percent, or 158,857 voters in the state, could see their registrations canceled before the presidential election. Purged voters often don’t find out they can no longer vote until they show up to the polls on Election Day and are turned away. Part of the reason that voters are frequently unaware that they have been removed from voter lists is the removal notification process. Most election offices only mail a postcard to voters who are set to be removed from rolls. However, evidence shows that these mailers are insufficient and are often ignored, overlooked, or mistaken for scams.  

Among the recommendations to address issues within voter file maintenance are that state and local election officials use multiple methods to contact voters about their possible removals from voter lists such as mailers, phone calls, texts, and emails. We also recommend that the names of inactive or removed voter records be released at least 30 days before registration deadlines and 30 days before Election Day so voters can re-register in time to vote and community organizations can conduct targeted outreach to help notify those whose names have been purged.  

By providing up-to-date and publicly accessible registration, voters will be able to easily determine their registration status, community organizers can help with voter outreach, and organizations like ours will be able to easily identify irregularities and inequalities. 

Ballot processing, which includes the counting of ballots, is a key aspect of election administration. Every ballot cast is linked to a voter in a precinct. Therefore, collecting comprehensive election data at the precinct level is crucial not only for the accurate and timely reporting of election results, but also to the efforts of community groups and researchers to identify points where election administration can be strengthened. Comprehensive precinct-level data is also essential to approaches aimed at increasing voter participation. 

One of the biggest challenges of promoting election data transparency is massive regional discrepancies. Some states, like North Carolina, provide detailed election data in machine-readable formats on government websites that can be easily analyzed. Other states, like Pennsylvania, only provide election data for some counties while other data need to be formally requested. Moreover, ballot rejection rates and the reasons ballots are rejected and the number of over and undervotes often go unreported. Voters deserve access to full reports on the outcomes of elections. Having precinct-level election results that include vote counts for every candidate, the number of ballot rejections, reasons for rejection, and the number of under and overvotes in machine-readable formats is a no-brainer.  

Among the series of evidence-based recommendations to increase ballot processing transparency, we suggest that state and local election officials implement ballot tracking that allows voters to follow their ballot through each stage of ballot processing and has the potential to increase public confidence in elections.  

We also recommend that officials release unofficial election counts complete with the number of mail/absentee ballots sent and returned, the number of challenged and rejected ballots, the reasons ballots were rejected, and the number of ballots identified as being eligible for curing in comma separated values (CSV) format, on at least a weekly basis after voting begins.  

Ballot curing allows voters who have errors on their mail-in or absentee ballots to address those errors, ensuring the ballot is counted. Thirty states have ballot curing policies in their election laws. However, these states differ on which errors they allow voters to fix, how they contact eligible voters, the methods available to voters to cure their ballots, and how much time they give voters to do so.  

Because Pennsylvania state law doesn’t provide election administrators with any direction on ballot curing, not every county in the state allows voters to fix their ballots. In the November 2022 elections, at least nine counties didn’t allow ballot curing. According to Spotlight PA, over nine million voters lived in those nine counties and at least 1,599 ballots with fixable errors were rejected and went uncounted. To make matters worse, days before the 2022 election, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered counties not to count mail-in ballots that had incorrect dates or undated envelopes.  

Among our recommendations are that election officials have the most expansive list of errors eligible for curing; contact voters who have errors they can fix via mail, phone, and email; and collaborate with local groups on curing outreach. We also suggest that voters should be permitted to cure their ballots multiple ways such as in-person, electronically, and via mail.  

Another important part of transparent elections are post-election audits. Election audits generate the data needed to determine that voting systems work the way they should, that election officials properly follow regulatory requirements, and to identify any irregularities in election outcomes. In short, audits will allow us to identify issues in election administration and to address those issues. Auditing also creates the data vital to fight attempts to subvert elections like the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. State audits in Wisconsin, Georgia, and Michigan found no evidence of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.  

We recommend that election officials conduct statewide risk-limiting audits before election results are certified and release audit reports to the public.   

We’re also looking into the recommendation that jurisdictions conduct risk limiting audits, which verify the results of an election by examining a sample of ballots for irregularities, after every election and that audit findings be released to the public before election certification. As of now, risk limiting audits are being used in at least some capacity in fifteen states.  

In 2024, election disinformation is predicted to be a bigger problem than ever. The threat is elevated by disinformation created and spread by artificial intelligence, like the AI-generated robocall to primary voters in New Hampshire posing as President Biden telling voters to stay home on election day. AI is even being used to create misleading campaign ads. Not only does disinformation erode public trust in the electoral process and lower voter turnout, it also poses a real threat to the people who run elections. Sixty-four percent of election officials reported that the propagation of false information made their jobs “more dangerous.”  

Disinformation also plays a significant role in election subversion. As defined by Protect Democracy, election subversion is an authoritarian tactic aimed at corrupting elections by preventing the true election winner from taking office, and it has become a key tool for bad actors to attempt to subvert election results. In 2020, false claims of election fraud were the basis of what came to be known as the “Big Lie” —the myth that Donald Trump won the 2020 election but the election was “stolen” from him. No system can totally preempt the lies of bad actors, but clear and consistent data can help counter disinformation and marginalize its purveyors, protecting all of our votes from efforts to nullify them.  

Public data belongs to all of us. People deserve to know how their elections are run, be able to hold election officials accountable, and see the full results of their elections. Moreover, publicly accessible and transparent election data is critical to improving our elections, increasing public trust in elections, and preventing future attempts to steal elections. If implemented, our recommendations for greater data transparency will make our democracy healthier and more equitable for all voters.  


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