Open Election Data

Shining a Light Inside Opaque Systems

Public access to election data, and civic technology built on common data formats, has the potential to unlock a new era of government accountability. Open data can be applied to a wide range of electoral functions, and the open government movement can play a central role in bringing transparency to twenty-first century elections.

The key to making open data successful lies in standardization. The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers are working on a common data format for elections, which if adopted would produce identical data across voting machines, precincts, and counties.


The National Democratic Institute's Open Election Data Initiative, supported by Google, has established nine principles for open election data. Read the initiative launch story.

  • Timely: made available as quickly as necessary for it to be useful
  • Granular: available at the finest possible level of detail
  • Available free on the Internet: easily available without any monetary restrictions
  • Complete and in bulk: available as a whole, without omissions
  • Analyzable: available in a digital, machine-readable format that can be easily analyzed
  • Non-proprietary: in a format over which no entity has exclusive control
  • Non-discriminatory: available to any individual or organization without limitations
  • License free: open for reuse and redistribution for any purpose; and
  • Permanently available: available via a stable Internet location for an indefinite period



Accurate voter lists should be published online by state or local governments. This would allow citizens to verify registration status and polling place location. Such a system should also give citizens the opportunity to correct errors or update records. Doing so reduces the potential for problems on election day: long lines, discouraged voters, provisional ballots, lost votes.


Transparent procedures must be in place so that citizens and stakeholders can assess the procurement of technologies, the recording of votes, and the tabulation of election results. The software that runs electronic voting machines should be open source, nonproprietary, and published. Elections are too vital to the health of democracy to outsource their management to private parties. When negotiating new equipment purchases, districts should require that their citizens have access to and ownership over source code.



Accurate election results should be published in a timely fashion, as granular as possible (precinct, voting machine, or even ballot level). Information about the networks over which results are transmitted should also be published. Ideally ballot images from optical scanners would exist in the public record. Taken together these measures will make citizen audits possible and allow multiple parties to search for anomalies, analyze data, and develop reforms.


Records of who has touched electronic voting machines and what maintenance or service they've provided should be made public. This includes when service is rendered over a network. Data should include timestamps, and copies of software patches, updates, or configurations. A public registry of who has access to voting machines should be maintained.


Citizens must be allowed access to physical ballots or paper audit trails to verify election results and conduct independent audits. Beyond subjective interpretation of voter intent (which can be resolved by multiparty teams using agreed rules), paper provides the only objective record of what happened in an election. Hence it's vital that citizens be given access to those documents for relevant lawsuits and investigations.


Election materials must be kept secure to guarantee the integrity of the process, but not to the exclusion of relevant public oversight. Freedom of information laws must be leveraged to ensure that in cases where election fraud is suspected the full election results data can be accessed by the public.


According to the Brennan Center, "RFPs should require voting systems to export election data in a standardized format." The National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers are working on a common data format for elections, which if adopted would produce identical data across voting machines, precincts, and counties. This would make election night monitoring easier, since machines would produce spreadsheets of vote totals in a format that could be compiled.


Citizens need accurate information on where they are supposed to vote. Too often confusion is sown by moving polling stations and failing to inform voters. They are then deprived of their right to vote or given a provisional ballot that is rarely counted. With maps and open data, governments can better inform citizens about where they are supposed to vote. Ideally webcams or other real-time monitoring could be used on Election Day to inform voters of expected wait times, and to alert election officials and observers about problematic polling places.


Open data can be used to inform citizens of district boundaries, and provide crucial input for independent redistricting after a national census. Too often districts are gerrymandered into partisan or racial configurations that benefit incumbent politicians more than the fair and equal representation of the people. With online citizen redistricting tools people will be able to advocate for the legislatures they deserve.


Campaign finance disclosures are already in use in many jurisdictions. They are a key tool for seeing who pays for political favor. Their use must be expanded and strengthened so that voters are aware of influential networks. Donation data must include at a minimum name, employer, amount, and date. Campaign expenditure data must include recipient, amount, purpose, and date. Reports must be issued throughout the campaign period to keep public databases accurate. Candidates must also disclose any relevant financial relationships or conflicts of interest that might influence their decisions and policies as government officials. These data must be made public, as well as the sanctions and appeals process for campaigns or parties that are accused of violating disclosure rules.