Sunshine in Memphis – Part 3

On Monday I talked about the online transparency efforts of the City of Memphis. Yesterday we touched on Shelby County Government. Today I want to focus on the Shelby County Election Commission.

Before I begin, I have to say that nearly every interaction that I have had with the staff of the Election Commission has been positive. To be honest, I’ve made some pretty annoying requests of some of the people in the Election Commission office, often times with little knowledge of what all goes in to fulfilling the request, and the people at the downtown office have always delivered, though sometimes it did require some clarification. In short, you guys do a good job.

The Shelby Co. Election Commission’s site serves two basic purposes. The first is to educate and inform voters on how to register, and where to vote. This information is readily available and easily accessible. In fact, the new design of the site actually works in ALL BROWSERS. This is a HUGE improvement over the site that existed just six months ago, and perhaps the most functional area of the site.

The second thing the site is supposed to do is provide access to election results and reports. This is where it really starts to suffer. First of all the Java JRE 5.0 plugin doesn’t work in all browsers (Safari on the Mac), though it does seem functional in Firefox. This is something that they should note on the first page to ensure people don’t go chasing their tail trying to MAKE it work.

Accessing the Election Reports is simple enough, though I notice that the Precinct Report for 2008 looks like it was scanned. Why not just download the copy from the State Site, or generate a PDF from the original document?

While accessing the reports are easy enough, doing anything with the data is a painful experience. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to copy and paste anything from a PDF to Excel or a Text document, but really, it’s borderline stupid. I don’t know what’s technically involved, but if a program can generate a PDF, one would think it could also generate a delimited text document, or CSV, or Excel spreadsheet. It would be nice if these things were made available on the site, for people like myself who are trying to learn the intricacies and trends of Shelby County voters, in some way, outside of the conventional wisdom. Further, it doesn’t seem like it would cost anything more to do something like this. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

There’s a third purpose that the Election Commission serves, but offers absolutely no web support for whatsoever, and that’s collecting and maintaining financial disclosures for local candidates. This is something that I really want to be made available on the web, but I know will be a HUGE undertaking. Still, since the state passed a law allowing counties to set up electronic financial disclosure filings, one obstacle is out of the way. The other obstacle is getting the candidates to actually file electronically.

I’ve looked at and had copies made of some local financial disclosures, and I’ve gotta say, the methods are all over the map. Some campaigns simply attach an Excel spreadsheet to the disclosure form, instead of using the actual 4 entries to a page form provided to detail the contributions and expenditures. Some actually hand write every single contribution and expenditure on the detail list (you know who you are). This presents a challenge for the Election Commission to make these records available electronically. Folks, this challenge isn’t lost on me, but that also doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen.

Currently, if you want to view a financial disclosure you have to truck on down to the office, fill out a form, and then you can see the disclosures. If you want a copy, that’ll be 25 cents a page please. If you’re trying to assess a trend, or look at who’s giving money to whom, this can represent a HUGE expense. Making these documents available online would be a great boon to transparency in electoral politics in Shelby County.

The long and the short of it is, the Shelby County Election Commission does a pretty good job of handling it’s core responsibility to voters, educating them about the voting process and making voting results available to the public. There’s room for improvement, in these areas, and even some simple fixes that could be done for easier access. The third area, financial disclosures, represents the biggest opportunity for the body online. Whether this happens or not is more an issue of funding and educating elected officials more than anything else. I hope, as the economy improves and local budget deficits are resolved, that monies will be set aside for this improvement. With County and City elections coming up in 2010 and 2011, it would be a great asset to Shelby County voters, and set us on the cutting edge of local financial disclosures in the south.

Ed. Note: Posting over the next several days will be limited as I am traveling through the 25th. Enjoy the rest of Sunshine week!

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