Sunshine Requests, Cloudy Responses
Often, when a county clerk changes the computer system used to report election results, information gets lost. Sometimes it’s temporary the clerk can find the information on hard copy other times, it’s never found.
Collecting voter turnout data from Missouri’s 114 counties and the city of St. Louis has proven difficult. If you read my first post, this might surprise you. After all, I reported a success rate of more than 50 percent in obtaining records from county clerks. But getting the records is just the first step.
The Sunshine Law is meant to promote transparency in Missouri government, but the voting records I have received are anything but clear. Although I only requested the last nine years’ worth of data for school district elections, numerous county clerks struggled to fulfill my request. In fact, some didn’t even come close. Many times, information was missing because of a new computer system.
What struck me first was the abundance of missing data. County clerks often omitted years completely. When I contacted them, many became defensive or tried to skirt the issue.
As far as general trends, gaps in election results seem to be most prevalent in 2000, 2004, and 2007. The gaps often coincide with the implementation of new computer systems for tracking election results. For several counties, even those that compiled otherwise exemplary information, the registered voter totals for some years read zero.
Many counties were able to sort this out as soon as I brought it to their attention; several read me the numbers over the phone from their hard copies in cases where it was missing from their computer files. However, there were some who couldn’t find the numbers. They often pointed out that they were not required to keep data longer than 22 months. Most, however, were reluctant to say the earlier records had been destroyed. Instead, they gave noncommittal responses, saying the information just wasn’t available.
While they’re not required to keep the results for more than 22 months, if the records still exist, they are required to make them available to anyone who asks. They are not allowed to destroy records in order to avoid a Sunshine Law request. I have no way of knowing for sure if or when this happens.
Computer system changes aren’t the only reason data goes missing.
The Mercer County clerk mentioned that an archivist had updated the records before she took office and that much of the data I had requested was unavailable. (What exactly did that archivist do?) After I emailed to request any remaining data, I waited for two weeks without a response. When I called, I finally got results: two handwritten numbers for 2008.
New Madrid County‘s clerk said he couldn’t give me the exact number of registered voters in the county for the indicated years. He sent me an average figure for the nine-year span. When I told him I needed more precise information for my research, he suggested that I check the Secretary of State’s records. (The Secretary of State’s website does list voter registration, but only for even-numbered years. For any other questions, or for more in-depth information, the website suggests contacting you guessed it the election authorities.) After another phone call, New Madrid’s deputy clerk is now working on my request. I did not mention her boss’ refusal to collect the data.
In essence, I met with some pretty cloudy results and stormy reactions from county clerks. The idea behind the law is good, but in practice: Don’t expect sunshine.
If you would like more information about which counties were missing information because of computer system changes, don’t hesitate to email me.