Election Transparency

The Next Great FOI Story?

Story by Aimee Edmondson, Missouri School of Journalism

When you are a political reporter and your state's gubernatorial election flip flops winners amid a weeks-long investigation into voting irregularities, you need every related public record you can get.

David Postman, chief political reporter for the Seattle Times, waded though wrongly rejected ballots, memos detailing administrative errors and other records while reporting on the various twists and turns in the 2004 governor's race in Washington State. The election garnered national attention and ended with Democrat Christine Gregoire winning – after the third official count – by only 129 votes, or .0045 percent.

Postman filed scores of public records requests, followed the paper trail and found "pieces of chaos." Documents showed dead voters, voting felons and people who voted twice.

"I wrote 100 stories about the election after the election," Postman told attendees of the annual National Freedom of Information Coalition conference, Seattle Sunshine: 2007 FOI Summit, on May 11-12.

This panel, "Election Transparency: The Next Great FOI Story?" was moderated by Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Other panelists included Jonathan Bechtle, director of the Citizenship and Governance Center for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation based in Olympia; and Bill Allison, a former investigative reporter and now a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation.

Postman, Bechtle and others filed FOIA requests for election officials' and workers' email records, county voting procedure manuals, registration rolls, ballots and information on voting machines. They found that thousands of absentee ballots were rejected on election day because signatures didn't match those of the original registration cards. More than half of voters vote absentee by mail in Washington State. Officials used a computer scan to compare the signatures, but records showed that each county used different standards to reject ballots.

Bechtle's organization also found instances of double voting, where people moved and voted in more than one county using their old and new addresses.

At the time, there was no statewide voter roll to examine, and among the state's 39 counties, there were five different database systems storing the information. That's changed thanks to the Help America Vote Act, a federal law requiring that states create their own comprehensive database.

Reporters also found dirty data, such as birthdays listed as being before 1900, and voters whose recorded birthday made them as young as eight years old. On top of that, they found confusing ballot designs that may have stumped voters. Panelists also discussed how election investigations can be improved through good old-fashioned pound-the-pavement reporting, as well as FOIA requests.

A few things to look for:

  • Private companies may be on contract to compile the voter registration data for the states. They may use a proprietary program, and members of the public can't read the database.
  • Also, who has custody of the ballots? Were they in an election official's trunk over the weekend? That instance was discovered through open records requests in Washington State.
  • Poll books also may have reports of any machine errors.
  • Also, reporters should know who is on the canvassing board and what that group's procedures are. Get this information beforehand so you have some idea who the players will be. These boards meet during the certification process, and those meetings are public. Usually records are produced as they go through certification.
  • Visit election office beforehand, as well. Learn the entire process of your state and local elections, how the machines are being used and what the ballot designs are like.

"Follow the process and you are way ahead of the curve," Allison said.

There is wide variance in the information each state has in its database. New York State has one of the most open, for example. It includes the name, address, date of birth, gender and whether the person voted absentee. Most states also have a unique identification number.

"Unfortunately, this may be the driver's license or social security number. So there is a question as to how open these records will be," Bechtle said.

The Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida compiles a state-by-state listing of election laws on its website. For more information, go to http://www.citizenaccess.org.