4. Advocating for Open Election Data
After developing an open election data plan, groups should have a strong idea of what data they can retrieve easily without any specific changes and what data they may need to request or seek modifications for. Both will involve some work from civic organizations, although the latter more so.
When Specific Data or Data Formats Must be Requested
In cases where complete and analyzable datasets are not available online, groups will need to take additional steps to acquire the information needed. Monitoring organizations should be deliberate in how and when they make open data requests to ensure they get the data they need. In this effort, groups will need to advocate directly with stakeholders in order to gain access to this data or specific formats. Advocacy is also not a one-size-fits-all strategy – in the same way that stakeholders will have different responsibilities and mandates over election data, advocacy efforts need to be tailored and responsive to the political context and interests of different stakeholders.
Monitoring organizations should understand which data is the most important (the highest priority) and which data they should ask for first. At least then groups can have the best chance of getting the best data, and then can push for lower priority data needs if the opportunity arises. Prioritizing data requests should consider:
- What open data a group absolutely needs within their observation strategy;
- What open data a group needs first to begin observation activities;
- What data is likely to take the most time to acquire given local processes; and
- What datasets, such as some of the versatile sets, will be useful throughout an observation.
Be diplomatic and inclusive
Consider working alongside the EMB and other civic actors to achieve open data principles. Monitoring groups should seek to meet with EMBs early on with their election data needs so that EMBs understand what expectations exist. EMBs may not realize why a certain data format may be problematic or what kind of timeline civic groups operate under. With enough notice, EMBs may even be able to alter data collection and analysis procedures to ensure the appropriate data is available. For instance, EMBs could update an administrative form to incorporate a data field organizations think would be helpful to evaluate.
In addition, other civil society actors and political parties may be interested in the same or similar data. Monitoring organizations should encourage the development of a broad open data community. Civic groups can learn from one another regarding obtaining and using open data, even in a non-electoral context. Bringing a broad coalition of interested actors to the table may not only help apply pressure on institutions to open election data, but can also maximize transparency and lay a foundation for other open governance data initiatives.
Address the right institutions and people
As previously mentioned, open data may reside in any number of government and semi-government institutions. In order to make sure your request is processed quickly, groups should make targeted data requests to the appropriate office or department and understand if there are specific or official rules or processes for making such requests. Even within an EMB, there may be data that groups want at the national level, as well as data that may only exist at regional or local levels. If your group is not clear what information resides where, that should be a topic for initial discussions with the EMB.
Assess commitments to transparency, accountability, open data
Opening data is one way public institutions can demonstrate transparency and increase public confidence. Data collected by public institutions is a foundation for decision-making with factual evidence, and opening this data allows stakeholders to assess decisions by institutions. Groups should take time to assess what commitments the government and public institutions have made to increase transparency, such as through law reforms on the accessibility of government data or international initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership.
Give sufficient and appropriate timing for requests
Retrieving open election data may take time, especially if the government has to alter formatting or disaggregate data. Monitoring groups should provide institutions with enough time to reasonably deliver data. In addition, groups should keep in mind that not all data is likely to be available at once. Before making a request, groups should review their observation plan and the electoral calendar to make sure they’re asking for the right data at the right time.
When requesting data, organizations should be clear about exactly what data they want and when they want it. Groups should provide as much guidance as possible to not only ensure data providers understand what they want, but so they won’t have to waste time going back for more or different information. In particular, groups should specify in open data requests:
- Data format (i.e., CSV, XML) and their desired delimiters, separators, and encoding (see the Technical Issues text box in Step 3);
- Data parameters (i.e., dates or timing) – For instance, some datasets may change over time. In those cases, groups should be specific about the time range they are interested in.
- Data details (including desired data fields and level of granularity);
- Data summary in addition to detailed dataset to allow data checking; and When they need the data.
Be persuasive when necessary
In some cases, monitoring organizations may have to convince government institutions of the importance of releasing certain data. It’s important for organizations to familiarize themselves with any previous commitments their government has made to data transparency. This can include membership in the Open Government Partnership, or participation in certain international and regional human rights mechanisms that compel electoral transparency, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees the right of citizens to participate in public affairs1 and to seek, receive and impart information2. Groups should also reinforce that opening election data can be beneficial to government institutions by:
- building public confidence in the process;
- enhancing voter education and dissuading misinformation;
- improving the link between citizens and government; and
- demonstrating EMB and government institutions’ commitment to transparency and accountability.
In some extreme cases, monitoring organizations may have to apply greater pressure to obtain election data. While placing increased pressure on institutions and stakeholders may feel daunting, groups should consider open election data as a critical aspect to strengthen electoral integrity and government accountability through more transparent elections. Some countries offer legal avenues for groups to gain government information that is otherwise not provided openly. This may require filing a Freedom of Information request (FoI) request, or in more severe circumstances, a legal claim. While these approaches can be effective remedies to uncooperative governments withholding data, they can create hostility with government institutions and can take a very long time to process. Groups should only pursue such action if they determine the data to be absolutely crucial to their electoral analysis, and have enough time to undergo a lengthy process without the data becoming irrelevant.
Consider level of data literacy within ecosystem and among stakeholders
A basic level of data literacy among officials or commissioners will be needed to support innovation and commitments to data transparency. Groups should remember that the officials they will contact may have varying levels of data literacy and thus may not understand the relevance or technical specifications of the data requested. Addressing the right people or institutions and being specific becomes particularly important in these contexts. In some cases, groups may need to provide education to key actors - such as election officials, other CSOs, the media or the public - around data concepts in order to promote an ecosystem of data literacy. This will allow stakeholders to better understand the importance of high-quality data, what useful data should look like and the uses of data.
Balancing data privacy and transparency
Transparency is one of the hallmarks of a credible election and citizens must have access to election-related data. At the same time, privacy is considered a human right in many countries, as well as under several regional conventions. Notably, the European Union’s (EU) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)3 provides a comprehensive framework for privacy across public and private sectors that may have an impact on privacy protection beyond EU borders. However, privacy rights, like all rights, are not absolute and weigh against other competing public interests and international standards, including the need for transparency.
Most electoral data highlighted in the Open Election Data Initiative does not include individual-level data, and those that do – such as campaign donor information or the voter list – are considered public data and subject to disclosure obligations. However, governments may have legal protections around certain types of data, which may be in place to protect vulnerable populations. Groups will need to be sensitive to the risks that open individual-level data may present to these populations. For instance, in some countries, publicly available voter rolls exclude the information for exceptionally vulnerable citizens, such as victims of domestic violence or people in the witness protection program. In other cases, personally identifiable information in voter data like national ID numbers may be scrubbed from public voter lists. However, these are often made available to observation groups conducting an analysis of the rolls with the agreement to not to publicly disclose the restricted data and to responsibly store the data.
Groups should understand the varying privacy legal frameworks, cultural practices, and risk profiles in their social and political context and be prepared to navigate those constraints. Broadly, however, it is important to emphasize that data collected through public funds and through public institutions is inherently public data that belongs to a country’s citizens.
ICCPR Article 25: “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives,” http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx ↩
ICCPR, Article 19, section 2: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx ↩
The GDP took effect in the European Union in May 2018. You can find more information on Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (GDPR) at https://gdpr.eu/. ↩