Despite accelerated timelines and lack of GIS-trained staff, states have geocoded voter addresses, assigned voters to newly redrawn precincts and improved transparency for voters and elections officials.
The marriage of geospatial information and elections divisions is crucial for enhancing the efficiency and utility of election systems, officials in four states said during a recent webinar.
Speaking at the National States Geographic Information Council (NSGIC)’s 2022 Elections GeoSummit, experts from Montana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont shared how they incorporated geospatial data into their elections technology.
The state has come a long way since it began exploring how geospatial information fit into elections in 2018. At that time, “we didn't have a lot of resources, but we had a lot of motivation,” said Erin Fashoway, Montana’s geographic information system (GIS) coordinator. “And we had a very mature spatial data infrastructure that included boundaries and addresses but did not include voting districts or any kind of voting unit data.”
Using grant money, the elections and GIS teams came together in 2020 through data-sharing partnerships. “This partnership is like peanut butter and chocolate; they go so well together,” Fashoway said.
The next year, they started geocoding voter addresses, cleaning up addressing data and creating voter precinct split boundaries. So far, work has been completed for 55 of the state’s 56 counties.
Next month, the state will go live with integrating next-generation 911 addresses into the system. “We’re extracting the voter records and then geocoding those addresses and then we’re also grabbing the points from [Enhanced 911],” said Stuart Fuller, elections manager for Montana. The goal is to have a single authoritative address layer that everyone in state and county government uses.
The Pennsylvania State Department is in the process of implementing a new voter registration and management system that would use GIS to identify precincts and assign voters. The plan includes having dashboards that provide a map view for county elections officials.
The current voter registration system, called the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, is reaching end of life, said Sindhu Ramachandran, chief of the division of election security and technology at Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation. It assigns voters to precincts, the precinct boundaries get converted into block ranges and those get typed into SURE.
“The system doesn’t have any address standardization,” Ramachandran said. “What happens is the voter or whoever looks at the polling place, enters the address and it gets looked up in the database against the block ranges. If the entry is not correct, you may not be able to retrieve the right information.”
In the works now is an address management module for SURE, said Matthew Ruch, a voting systems analyst at the Pennsylvania State Department. “It allows you to manage address points and some layers. It allows election officials to import addresses as long as those addresses have coordinate information,” Ruch said. “Then, the election officials can review address points, move points around if required, and add other data layers to the map.”
When the state’s General Assembly enacts redistricting legislation, that gets passed down to cities and towns, which then share their data with the state elections office, said Rob Rock, Rhode Island’s director of elections.
“We’re in charge of taking all of the data that the General Assembly and the cities and towns give us, and we have to update the voter registration system to reflect the new lines so that voters are assigned to the correct precinct and that there are no issues with any of the data that we have received,” Rock said.
“When the cities and towns are doing their redistricting and their geocoding, they’re making dots on a map, but then they’re transforming that back into address ranges,” added Jess Cigna, a senior data analyst at the Rhode Island State Department. “Then that comes into our system, and that’s how voters are assigned their precinct. What we do, though, is we use SmartyStreets to go out and verify that that is a real address.” (SmartyStreets is now Smarty, a location data intelligence company.)
A challenge the state has historically faced has been transparency. “There was really no easy way for voters—and really anybody—to see what the new lines look like after they were drawn,” Rock said. To remedy that, the team built the Legislative District Downloader tool, which lets people see proposed legislative boundaries in all their iterations as well as the final lines.
They also built the Mail Drop Box Locator. Because more people have been voting by mail since 2020, the team created this tool so that people can go to the elections website, enter their address and see where the closest mail ballot drop box is located—and where their early voting location is, if they prefer to go that route. “We were able to use GIS to make it easier for voters to cast their ballot,” Rock said.
Each of the state’s 246 towns and cities has a clerk who interacts with the statewide voter checklist system. By working with the Vermont Center for Geographic Information (VGCI), the Elections Division has been able to improve its ability to validate addresses and get that information back to the local level.
A major test of the partnership came when the legislature adopted new district lines in April 2021, Elections Division Director William Senning said. Ballots for the August primary had to go out in June, giving the division just weeks to implement the new districts in their system and send them the accurate quantity of ballots.
Plus, the maps from the legislature lacked the detail that the division and clerks needed. A few days after a call to VCGI Director John Adams, “VCGI turned around a set of three different web-based, interactive maps displaying the new Senate and House districts from the legislature,” Senning said. “They had search features by address, by district, etc…. They were interactive, user-friendly, and had the appropriate level of precision we needed.”
Improved address validation proved crucial again this year during the midterm election, the first election since Vermont passed legislation in 2021 requiring that a ballot be mailed to every registered voter in the state for every general election, he said.
In the future, Senning said he wants to post the maps online for public use and incorporate them into Vermont’s My Voter Page, a portal where voters can access their information.
“We’re right now in the process of putting together procurement materials and [a request for proposals] for a new election management system, and [we] 100% intend to ask for a geo-enabled voter checklist as a part of that system,” he said.
NSGIC’s ‘State Election Director Report’
The webinar draws on key findings in NSGIC’s “2022 State Election Director Report,” which found that 39% of election directors said they have a voter registration system that supports GIS, although they’re not all using that functionality.
Some challenges to GIS that the report notes include a lack of GIS expertise and resources in local government, high turnover in election offices and competing priorities such as cybersecurity.
“Despite these obstacles and concerns, encouragingly—I think I could even say remarkably—most state election offices hoped to have integrated GIS into their voter registration systems by 2027 in time for the 2028 presidential election,” said Neil MacGaffey, retired director of Massachusetts’ MassGIS, during the webinar.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.
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