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Mapping America’s Future: 4 Ways GIS Data Impacts Elections

On an election night, many voters stay glued to their TV or phone as they wait for the results. They watch districts on the electoral map change color and the balance of political power shift as votes are tallied. That visual representation shows us how powerfully citizens’ choices can affect the future of a city, a state or the entire country.
GIS in Elections
Detailed maps are not only crucial to understanding the outcomes of a vote, but also to organizing the electoral system as a whole. Increasingly sophisticated Geographic Information Science (GIS) tools and techniques are changing political campaigns and elections in several significant ways. Accurate and transparent GIS election data can benefit government agencies, candidates and the entire voting population.

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1. Add Visibility to Redistricting

Every 10 years, the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned across the 50 states based on population data collected by the Census Bureau. In turn, the states set district boundaries that determine what races the people who live in each voting precinct can participate in. Voting authorities must comply with an array of regulations and account for demographic shifts when making these adjustments.

GIS simplifies the redistricting process by offering a clear view of all possible variations in the electoral map to ensure that users meet all requirements. Mapping programs prevent common errors, such as failing to meet rules that call for contiguity—meaning you can travel between any two points within a district without crossing into another district—and compactness. Government agencies and voter advocacy groups can draft multiple proposed plans and demonstrate the effects of various approaches, like how moving a border might divide a community of interest.

2. Streamline Election Management

Every election is a complex process that requires extensive planning and infrastructure. Many people must work together to ensure polls run efficiently, from the officers on county election boards to the poll workers on site. Officials coordinate a wide range of factors, like inspecting polling places, securing voting systems, registering absentee or provisional ballots and communicating with members of the public.

Some areas, like Los Angeles County, employ election mapping software to help meet these logistical demands. GIS tools provide officials with a map-based model to monitor operations and carry out essential administrative tasks, such as:

  • Precisely setting precinct borders
  • Verifying the districts where individuals live to ensure they vote in the correct contests
  • Spotting and addressing issues that could interfere with voters reaching their assigned polling places
  • Tracking events at individual polling places in real time

3. Encourage Voter Participation

The U.S. has consistently lower voter turnout than many other established democracies. According to Pew Research Center, 55.7 percent of the voting-age population participated in the 2016 election, placing the U.S. at No. 26 out of the 36 developed nations involved in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Meanwhile, the countries with the greatest participation in their most recent elections were Belgium, where 87.21 percent of the voting-age population made it to the polls, and Sweden, which had 82.61 percent participation.

How do governments and nonprofit organizations attract more people to the polls? GIS may be a vital part of the solution. Spatial data can contribute to improving turnout in a variety of ways, including:

  • Situating polling places in easily accessible locations to reduce the need for voters to travel long distances
  • Helping voters find the most convenient polling places or early voting centers
  • Sharing current wait times for voting
  • Passing along election results and related data that keeps the public and local media outlets informed and engaged

4. Narrowly Target Campaigns

Political operatives and observers want to learn more about the factors that lead certain candidates and ballot measures to resounding victory while others are firmly rejected. Spatial analysis provides useful context for understanding electoral outcomes and optimizing efforts to connect with voters. Campaigns that implement GIS in politics may discover a great deal about the factors that motivate the public and gain an edge over their competition.

Political GIS data allows operatives to set priorities and mobilize outreach by revealing important data and trends within a voting population. Spatial information can help identify the best locations to host events or place advertising. By drawing demographic information from campaign mapping software, campaigns strategically allocate workers and volunteers, finding the most effective ways to contact likely supporters.

About USC’s GIS Graduate Programs

The University of Southern California offers a comprehensive selection of GIS programs, including GIS master’s degrees and GIS graduate certificates. Click on the programs below to learn about our leading geographic information science education.

GIS Master’s Degrees

GIS Graduate Certificates