Promoting public access to election records.

Why Publish Voter Histories?

Public elections in the United States, and in most other countries, utilize a secret ballot. This means that no one except the individual voter is supposed to know for which candidates or propositions that voter voted.

The secret ballot protects voters' privacy and generally prevents the buying and coercion of votes. But the secret ballot also creates a couple of problems for democracy: (1) it makes verifying the results of an election much harder; and (2) it promotes voter apathy by stripping the act of voting of its communicative function.

The Who Voted website is our attempt to address these two problems while maintaining ballot secrecy and voter privacy. It makes voter histories, which are public information but are otherwise difficult to access, available to everyone via the web.

Although this site is meant for demonstration purposes and has serious limitations, we hope it will get people thinking about the need for public access to voting records as a component of verifiabiliy, and about the fact that voting is a public act with public consequences.

Click on an item below to read more:
  1. What data are available on this site?
  2. Who has access to voter lists?
  3. Why is it important for voter lists to be public information?
  4. If the data on this site are public already, then what is the purpose of this website?
  5. What role does public access to voting lists play in promoting voting?
  6. What are the limitations of this website?

What data are available on this site?

Every government election in the United States keeps lists of each person whose ballot was cast in that election. Voters who vote in person at polling places will recognize this as the page they sign upon arriving at the polling place and receiving their ballots, although absentee voters get recorded on the list too.

These lists are referred to variously as "election registers", the "poll book", "incoming voting lists", or "voted voter" lists (or simply, "voter lists"). They are distinct from the lists of people who are registered to vote ("registration lists").

The data on this site are electronic versions of voter lists, which are compiled into voter histories for each registered voter. When voters sign an election register or are otherwise manually recorded by a poll worker as having voted, electronic voter histories may show errors of transcription from the original lists, or be otherwise incomplete.

This site does not give access to registration lists - it only gives access to voter lists which we have been able to obtain.

Who has access to voter lists

Voter lists are officially public information in most states: many areas even post the lists of voters who turned out at each polling place on the polling place's door for a few days following the election. After that, however, it is very difficult to access an election's voter list. Nearly every county and state provides it only through a formal request. If more than just a few records are requested, the government charges a fee and often provides the data in a proprietary or hard-to-understand format.

Why is it important for voter lists to be public information?

In a secret ballot election of the kind held in the United States, it is impossible for individual voters to verify that their votes were correctly counted and that no false votes were recorded.

Trusting the results of such an election requires a more complicated set of conditions to be met. First, the ballots must be collected and held securely, so that no one may alter or discard a legitimate ballot or add illegitimate ballots before the count. Second, the counting of collected ballots must be verifiable by all sides in an election, e.g. through hand recounts under public scrutiny.

For the second condition to be met,, CPSR, and other organizations support a requirement that all ballots, including those recorded electronically, be recorded and kept in paper form so that they can be counted and recounted in a transparent manner with all interested parties represented.

The first condition is not actually met in most elections held in the United States. Many voters cast their ballots by mail, and these ballots may get lost, or even discarded or altered without the knowledge of the voter. Votes are often challenged as being illegitimate (e.g. because the voter is ineligible to vote in a given precinct), and are either set aside to be counted after a determination of elibility or are discarded if a challenge is successful. Representatives of one side or another have been reported to bring lists of allegedly ineligible voters to polling places and where absentee ballots are being collected, for purposes of challenging voters' right to vote.

There are many places in the chain of vote collection and holding where votes could be altered, discarded, or submitted fraudulently. Without easy access to the voter list, a voter is unlikely to find out whether a vote was recorded for them.

The possibility of "voter fraud" (individual voters casting ballots illegitimately) has recently been used to justify an Indiana law requiring voters to bring a photo ID with them to the polling place (click here for more. Under current conditions, such laws are disciminatory violations of privacy. What is termed "voter fraud" has been documented to be an exceeedingly rare occurrence, and laws like Indiana's do not address what we regard as the real threat to election security, which comes from organized groups (including government officials) attempting to disqualify or prevent legitimate ballots from being cast, and otherwise altering election results, as the journalist Greg Palast has alleged happened in Ohio in 2004.

Public access to voter lists makes laws like the Indiana photo ID provision unnecessary, while also protecting against organized election tampering. In principle, if every voter can see whether or not a vote was recorded for them in any given precinct, they can detect whether their vote was discarded, or whether someone else has voted in their name. If the entire list of voters is publicly visible, then the public can verify that all of the recorded votes were cast by legitimate voters, and that the total number of recorded votes matches the reported totals from the official election count.

Thus, public access to the voter list would provide, in principle, a way of ensuring that all legitimate ballots are counted, and that all counted ballots are legitimate. It would therefore provide a way of checking that ballots have been collected and held securely, addressing the first condition of trustworthiness mentioned above.

Unfortunately, the data which are actually available on this site have accuracy limitations which make them practically unreliable for public verification of elections. Part of the purpose of this site is to draw attention to these limitations and to the need for public access to more accurate data to ensure election integrity.

If voter lists are public already, then what is the purpose of this website?

Election information, including lists of registered voters, is technically public record in all but a handful of U.S. states. However, we have found that voter lists are extremely difficult to acquire.

Sometimes, the difficulty comes in laws that restrict access to voter histories. For instance, Pennsylvania and Arizona will provide the records on paper or CD, but have laws preventing posting voter data on the Internet.

The vast majority of the state and county departments of elections charge large fees -- up to $12,500 per region -- for voter histories. Presumably, voter lists are quite valuable to political candidates and lobbying committees; the Commonwealth of Virginia, for example, provides the lists only to those two groups.

The Who Voted website cuts through the red tape in acquiring states' electronic voter lists, and makes the essential information from these lists free for public viewing on the Internet. We believe this is fairer and more democratic, because it removes the advantage that well-organized and well-funded groups currently have in obtaining voter lists.

Due to the difficulty of obtaining voter lists for a public website, the data available through the Who Voted website are currently limited to the states of Florida, Idaho, Ohio, and Washington.

Still, if the Who Voted website gathers attention as a novel and useful public resource, perhaps other elections departments will be more amenable to working with us in our endeavor.

Public access to election records is essential for trustworthy elections. But access is not granted in every state, and is under constant threat from legal attempts to block access. Citizens should question why a government would restrict who can access election data, and who ultimately benefits from such restrictions. View voter record costs & limitations in all states

What role does public access to voting lists play in promoting voting?

In addition to its role in promoting verifiable elections, the Who Voted website promotes the socially responsible act of voting. Voting is an act with profound consequences not just for oneself but for other people. But voter turnout rates went down after the secret ballot was introduced in the late 19th Century, perhaps because the secret ballot meant that voting lost part of its social function, even as it maintained its social consequences.

Research by political scientists strongly suggests that people are more likely to vote if voting is seen as a social act (e.g. in smaller towns where one is more likely to know the poll workers and others at a polling place). So by making voting more visible, a "Who Voted?" website might well increase turnout and even civic engagement as a side-benefit to its uses for election security.

We hope the website will get people talking about what it means to vote, whether and to what extent it is a private or public act, what data should be publicly available, and what its consequences are for localities, states, the U.S., and the world.

Voters as a group have tremendous power; their decisions can result in very good outcomes or very bad ones. Yet the prevailing ideology is that voting is a private act, expressing individual preferences. The Who Voted website allows us to question whose interests are really served by this view, without actually sacrificing the secret ballot or making more information public than is currently the case.

What are the limitations of this website?

The data made available on this website are limited to official electronic voter histories to which we have gained access. Future versions, we hope, will include data from more states, as well as tallies of the total numbers of voters on each list, and comparisons with official election counts. The voter lists only show who is officially recorded as having cast a ballot in an election. They cannot ensure that a ballot was counted correctly. Trustworthy counts require other security measures, as outlined above. In addition, the voter lists provided on this site may well be incomplete, because the data made available by a government may not include voters who are excluded by that government, e.g.for privacy reasons, or because they are no longer registered to vote. The electronic voter lists may also differ from paper election registers due to clerical transcription errors. Click here for more info on this.

Ballots that are received and recorded often do not contribute to the count, e.g. if no legible voting mark is made by the voter in a given race or if too many marks are made. Thus, the total number of recorded voters cannot be expected to match the total votes counted in most elections. Still, some conditions must be met, e.g. the total votes counted must not be greater than the number of recorded voters. And large official disparities and irregularities between the number of voters and the number of votes raise suspicion about the legitimacy of an election.

Admittedly, the success of the Who Voted website alone will not suddenly make the secret-ballot election system trustworthy, although a fully transparent election process would likely involve a publicly accessible record of who voted, such as this. Still, we hope that this project will encourage election accountability through public verifiability and voter responsibility.


About Who Voted

Who Voted lets you see whose votes were recorded in recent elections (It does not say who they voted for.)

All information available on this site is public record and provided by the Elections Departments in states and counties around the United States.

The views expressed on this site are solely those of the project team, and do not represent the views of Stanford University, CPSR, or Google.


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Who Voted is an open-source project: anyone (even you) can contribute to its success.

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