Elections data in the Netherlands: do our votes count?

There are interesting things happening with election data around the world. In the Netherlands, however, this information is not accessible or restricted while it would open a world of opportunities for citizens and journalists.

by Lex Slaghuis

Since the data exchange between governments is already standardized by EML, it would be easy to archive. It’s time for politicians to make a feast of ‘transparant democracy’. With the European elections on the horizon, in Porto, the European transparency and participation platform (EPSI) organized a meeting with various experts on election data.

There are many initiatives around EML

In the United States, Google has for some time a service that focuses which politicians belong to which constituency and where you can go to cast your vote. This service makes it for platforms such as FourSquare possible to help their users during the elections. For example, it shows polling stations in the neighborhood. In addition, the service also provides interesting trends.

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In Portugal, all election information is maintained manually. Governments are approached for election data, including votes per district, and they are published on dados.gov. In Europe, there are several databases that maintain this type of information.

In the past year, a standard was developed in the Netherlands: EML NL. This standard facilitates data-exchange between the government and the Election Council during elections. EML NL is based on the international Election Markup Language (EML) standard, which is adjusted to local settings. EML contains the names of kandidates and the election results in addition to the number of votes per kandidate. EML also includes the number of votes per kandidate on the level of polling stations.

With this standard, the Netherlands is among the top list of countries with this type of election information exchange. The standard is being used to exchange information between governments and enables the Election Council to proof that all polling stations filed reports and that counts are accurate. So this is pretty important.

Voting behind governmental bars

Unfortunately, we make little use of the opportunities offered by this standard. The data under this standard is not open to the public. If this data is open it would enable new applications and insights that have a positive impact on our democracy. At this moment, very little information is available about the elections:

  • On the website of the Election Council the results appear only five weeks after the elections in its database;
  • In this database, only the results on the municipal level is shown, not at the level of polling stations;
  • Although the unofficial results of the local elections were announced one day after the elections (March 20, 2014), one is referred to the websites of local governments for the results;
  • On March 28, when the last recounts were done, one is still referred to the websites of local governments.

Where are the results?

On election night, we see flashy screens and news anchor Herman van der Zandt, nicknamed ‘Herman the Screenman‘. Backstage, the news is followed and calls are made to municipalities. What we see are not the actual results. A misinterpretation of results or an error in the news chain could cause wrong information being spread. With the European elections it will be even more diverse. Before the closing of the last polling stations, it is not allowed to provide media with the election results. Reason for the Dutch blog Geenstijl to call for vote counters. This is the moment why some would need to worry.

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The worst is yet to come

But are we deceived in the Netherlands? Can we learn lessons from abroad? Niels Erik Rassmussen Kaaber is doing interesting research on election results. My Danish is unfortunately not so well, but this image makes it clear that elections results in general form a whole. When islands are formed something is wrong. In Uganda and Russia polling stations that differ from the whole can be examined.

More democracy abroad

By adding our election data to the international data body, researchers such as Erik Kaaber Rassmussen could perform their work even better. The preliminary results are as interesting as the definitive results. Not every country has a good checks-and-correction system. Development cooperation can be that simple.

Help Herman de Screenman and his friends

The Dutch Public Broadcasting NOS could put the elections results live on their screens with the most recent election data. Even Herman the Screenman wouldn’t even know what to expect. Polling stations can be found on social media and journalists would have candidate lists months before the elections providing news angles from both national and local media.

The Election Council is beside the mark

In a recent report, the Election Council in the Netherlands evaluated in detail the manner in which elections are organized in the Netherlands. It noted that the Dutch Freedom of Information act (WOB) does not apply during the election period when it comes to filed lists of candidates, declarations of approval and support statements. The Election Council has adviced to codify existing jurisprudence in the Election Law. This is ofcourse putting the cart before the horse. If this information would be online, this problem would not exist after all.

Election law must change

In particular around elections we need an Election Law that forces governments to provide continuous election data in an uniform and structured manner. Lists of candidates and other relevant information that needs to be collected need to be published online immediately. As soon as there is a preliminary determination, such as a preliminary count of a polling station, this information need to be made accessible.

It’s not the technology, but politics

The continuous publication of these data by 400 municipalities sounds like a complex process. However, during elections, everywhere in the Netherlands professional software is used. Elections Support Software (OSV) is being used to exchange election data between authorities. And you guessed it: all these exchanged data is typical EML data. We know that the Election Council already delivers EML-files to some of the newspapers. This (open source) software could easily be adjusted to publish data online. Even if today, elections are collected manually by an active blog such as Geenstijl, we do prefer open election data.

Lex Slaghuis is CTO of Open State Foundation. This blogpost was earlier published by Frankwatching.

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