Open electoral data can reap substantial dividends in fostering integrity in electoral processes. It entails breaking down elections in relation to the various institutions and data streams involved at each stage.
While various actors have been working on increasing credibility in electoral processes has been ongoing for some time now, the open electoral data movement is marked by the National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) launch of the Open Election Data Initiative (OEDI) in 2013.
In Asia, some of the notable civil society initiatives have been undertaken in Afghanistan, India and Indonesia. These have been devised as observation and monitoring tools that hold election administrators accountable.
The vastness of electoral processes entails surmounting several challenges in opening up of electoral data. This includes the fragmented availability of open electoral data, the variety of data sought to be opened up, and contemporary issues with political polarisation.
Open electoral data contributes to open data efforts which seek to embolden the democratic process. One of the major concerns and motivations of the open data movement is to curb corruption within public institutions; making electoral data available plays a large role in achieving this broader goal.
Electoral data largely includes voting statistics for major federal, subnational, and municipal elections. It also includes:
Legal frameworks constructing election processes
District and demographic data
Qualifying Election Management Bodies (EMB)
Information on EMB administrative staff and operations
Election result security and credibility
Political party registration
Ballot qualification and e-voting
Campaign and campaign finances
Voter registration and voter lists
Voter education and awareness
Data on voting stations, namely their locations stations
Electoral complaints/ disputes and resolutions1.
Additionally, tracking whether or not elected officials are staying on track with promises and agendas they stood by during their campaign falls within the realm of open electoral data.
Like many other subsets, the “openness” of open electoral data is characterised by its timeliness, granularity, permanent availability, re-usability, and free licensing2. Opening up electoral data heightens sentiments of electoral integrity. For audiences ranging from media, civil society organisations (CSOs), and electoral monitoring organisations, opening up electoral data demonstrates moving towards transparency and provides answers as to how and why certain officials are elected, thus creating a sense of accountability in the electoral process. In doing so, the voter confidence and turnout can improve and voters can make more informed decisions based on previous voting patterns and electoral data.
With clearly defined policies and centralised databases, there is a greater possibility of data being used and reused to strengthen the democratic process for all actors involved.
A concerted global open electoral data movement was initiated by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) when it announced the launch of an Open Election Data Initiative (OEDI) in 20133. The initiative provides many of the election datasets listed above in a variety of languages. Hosted on a site called openelectiondata.net, the initiative tailors general open government data principles to electoral processes. Specifically, principles for open election data are listed as follows:
Timeliness of data availability - campaign information being released before voting periods (so voters may make better informed decisions) and electoral results being archived in real-time
Granularity of data at local, regional, and national levels - other granularities include by party, by candidate, by locality, by agenda, etc.
Freely, non-discriminatorily, and permanently available on the internet
The quality of the data made available will be judged based on its completeness, volume, potential for reuse and analysis, and license free4
As a result of this work, notable shifts have occurred, especially among civil society. In Ukraine, OPORA, a citizen monitoring organisation collectively analysed candidate applications. This was helpful in corroborating claims made by candidates5. Additionally, in Colombia, Mision de Observacion Electoral (MOE) preemptively identified potential high-risk voting areas based on historical data crowdsourcing6. In collecting this data, relationships were formed between civil society actors and authorities during pre-election periods as they would regularly communicate. While NDI normally partners with citizen groups and civil society organisations, it also works with bodies directly involved in elections, such as political party campaigners and EMBs, to conduct themselves in compliance with electoral integrity.
In addition to forging a shift towards open electoral data on a global scale, NDI established the Election Data Academy to internally and externally explore various data analysis methodologies and tools to advance advocacy and accountability measures7.
Evidently, NDI, OpenElections, and reporting organisations such as DemWorks play a large role in advocating for open electoral data and highlighting successful and unsuccessful case studies. In addition to these actors, there are countries with open electoral databases and civil society actors looking to keep their electoral processes in check. A section of India’s Open Government Data portal features electoral statistics such as composition and allocation of seats in various states. While the data available in India is not as robust as places in Latin America, there is an acknowledgement of the importance of disaggregated data, as is demonstrated by datasets on women’s participation in elections8. Additionally, Satark Nagrit Sangathan, a CSO initiative out of Delhi, leverages India’s information disclosure law (the Right to Information Act, 2005) to create report cards for elected representatives that evaluate their performance and ability to carry out campaign promises9.
There are also examples of advocates who compile different datasets10 and make them publicly available on different repositories such as GitHub11. Interestingly, private actors are now looking to join forces with advocates and journalists to access electoral data and publish analysis in the public domain. As part of the Google News Initiative, the Google News Lab Team has collaborated with various news outlets to more easily make anonymised data and data trends available to journalists12. Through workshops, specialised data pages, and mapping electoral data, Google claims to help journalists in their endeavour to access more information and communicate it to the public. While concerns may be raised in terms of political targeting and advertising, this case offers an interesting lens into the advantages and disadvantages of private and public collaboration.
Noteworthy initiatives in Asia include Development Seed’s project to map election data in Afghanistan13, GovLab and Indonesia’s Kawal Pemilu14, and the Association for Democratic Reforms established by Indian scholars15.
NDI and Development Seed’s data mapping project in Afghanistan began as an application designed to help Development Seed to internally monitor the elections and results. Once the results were released, the public was given access to the data in order to build capacity and improve future elections. Given the political context in Afghanistan, where the 2 previous national elections had been scrutinised by various security breaches and voter fraud, observations on 2009 and 2010 elections in machine-readable formats have been helpful for improving operations and voter practices on the ground.
In Indonesia’s case, Kawal Pemilu was launched because of the increased political polarisation after the 2014 presidential elections. During this time, the tabulations of the results - which were already made public according to the Elections General Commissions (KPU) commitment to transparency - were mobilised by activists who voluntarily digitised hand-written data within a matter of days. As a result of this collective action, the organisation built trust in democratic transitions.
Oldest of the three initiatives featured here, the ADR was instituted in 1999 by professors who filed a case requesting the disclosure of criminal and financial information on political candidates. Since a favourable ruling in 2003, the ADR has aimed to minimise corruption in the Indian election process, hold political candidates to higher accountability standards, and create inter and intra party transparency and understanding. As a body, they have conducted “election watches on Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, and State Assembly election in 2004, 2009, 2014, and 2019.” While there is much progress to be made, the ADR is evidence of policies and citizen action shaping the openness and transparency of electoral processes.
A notable initiative across the Asia region more broadly is the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL). ANFREL has three core tenants, election observation, capacity building, and advocacy16. Through reportage and research, ANFREL unites parliamentarians and civil society efforts across Asia to hold democratic institutions in check. For example, ANFREL covered the presidential election in Sri Lanka in 2019 and identified successes and inadequacies within the process. While this initiative does not advocate directly for open data, it’s drive to observe elections can be met by open electoral data objectives.
In terms of implementing technology, DemTools, a toolkit created by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), involves interactive platforms such as learning apps to engage youth civic actors in particular on voter education17. To augment the use and implementation of technology, NDI is looking for strategies and ways in which to center humans and human learning within the tools it creates18.
The Global Open Data Index, hosted by the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN), render accessible polling station data, election results, registered votes, and invalid votes. With electoral data from countries around the world in 2013-2015, the index provides rankings and percentages according to the principles outlined by NDI and ODI. Both aggregated and disaggregated data types are made available19.
Other noteworthy databases of electoral data include the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s (IDEA) voter turnout database20 and the ArcGIS Solutions for Local Government for Election Results hosted by esri21. The former predates the height of the open electoral movement. This database claims to be the most extensive and thorough source of data on voter turnout from elections around the world dating back to 1945. In addition to country elections, EU parliamentary elections are also included in the collection of disaggregated and machine-readable data. The latter draws connections between subsets of open government data and presents election results in conjunction with ArcGIS software with which elections results can be tabulated in real-time. While this database does require more from the user, in terms of software and know-how, the data can be presented on maps and various layers to show multiple variables simultaneously.
As is the case with many other open data subsets, governments can choose to create their own monitoring tools with similar structures, or streamline their efforts in tandem with existing tools and databases.
Centralised databases: In instances when data is scraped by independent people or various organizations, datasets exist in a number of places and in a number of formats online, making analysis and re-use difficult.
Variety of data: Noted above, electoral data includes a wide range of information. Often, when electoral data is made open, most of the data available focuses solely on voting data, and less so on campaign finances and election management bodies. Often, media outlets are the only sources of information in regards to campaign finances - election management bodies are questioned post election results. The Open Election Data Net provides examples of countries in Latin America including Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico which have successfully published a wide variety of data sets in their most recent elections22.
Ensuring open electoral data is not spreading misinformation: In 2015, an enterprise called Twinmark Media created a Facebook page that became the most infamous source of spam and fake news regarding political candidates in the Philippines. False articles and images were posted on this Facebook page which had a total of 43 million page members23. The skepticism regarding Facebook content, and the content of platforms under its control have become prominent tools for extremists in Myanmar, Indonesia, and India. Public and independent bodies making electoral data available must consult with major online infrastructures to ensure that data is not used to spread misinformation, especially during elections24.