In early January 2021, Georgia voters were faced with an opportunity to make history.
The state’s two U.S. Senate seats were headed into a runoff election, and the outcome would determine whether Republicans or Democrats would secure a majority in the U.S. Congress’ upper house. All eyes were on the race—not just in Georgia, but across the entire country.
More than two-thousand miles away, the runoff election was also on the radar of the non-partisan Center for Inclusive Democracy (CID) at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, whose mission focuses on creating a more engaged and representative democracy across the U.S. Having built its reputation for producing a wide range of research to help inform election and voting processes, the Center and its director Mindy Romero knew getting important election participation information to Georgia’s voters, community groups and election officials would be critical to boost and broaden turnout on election day.
Using publicly available voter data provided by the Georgia Secretary of State’s (SOS) Office, the Center moved quickly, adapting one of its signature digital platforms—its Ballot Return Tool—for use during the runoff race.
First rolled out in Los Angeles County to support the 2020 General Election, the web-based Ballot Return Tool provides visualized data maps of ballots returned by registered voters—down to the precinct or neighborhood level. Lighter green shades on the digital map indicate neighborhoods with lower turnout—darker blue indicates higher ballot return areas. During the Georgia election, CID updated voting tallies daily.
In the weeks leading up to the race, community groups, election officials and the public were able to use the Ballot Return Tool digital maps to track areas where voting was low, then conduct more targeted and last-minute outreach to those neighborhoods to increase voter access. The Ballot Return Tool also proved vital in providing an additional level of transparency to the voting process.
“Given the significance of the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, our online Ballot Return Tool was able to provide important up-to-date and visualized data quickly to election officials and community groups, which was especially critical in the midst of a pandemic,” said Mindy Romero, Ph.D., director of CID. “It’s been so well received that we’re currently looking to expand the tool to other counties and states in future elections.”
At the same time, CID is working to expand its other digital platform, the Voting Location Siting Tool. First piloted in California in 2018, the Voting Location Siting Tool is also web-based. Its interactive data mapping system helps communities identify accessible vote centers and polling places likely to have the most success serving voters during elections. The Tool was rolled out during the 2020 General Election in a total of ten states representing 43% of the U.S. population.
“The Voting Location Siting Tool makes one of the most complex and important aspects of planning an election both data-driven and accessible to all,” said Stephanie Doute, executive director of the League of Women Voters of California. “Ensuring that voting locations are convenient for underrepresented Californians—including communities that do not historically vote by mail, people with disabilities, and those who need language assistance—is critical to expanding participation.”
“I think we are at a critical juncture in our democracy, where factual and data-driven information is needed more than ever,” added Romero. “Turning large data sets of voting information into meaningful, localized and actionable information is something that our Center has been working on now for more than a decade.”
Founded by Romero as the California Engagement Project at UC Davis over a decade ago, the research organization moved to USC Price in 2018, and a year later officially changed its name to the Center for Inclusive Democracy.
Now considered one of the country’s leading nonpartisan research centers focused on elections and voting, the Center and its data reports have become go-to resources for state and county election officials and community groups across the U.S.
This year, the Center kicked off a year-long celebration in honor of its 10-year anniversary.
Over the decade, CID has issued and contributed to dozens of studies on civic participation and voting behaviors. But Romero says that she is most proud of the work that her Center has done to help engender and promote a more representative and engaged voting electorate across the U.S., especially for people of color and other disenfranchised groups.
Building inclusiveness and advocating for economic and social justice is not only a personal passion of Romero, but a goal that the Center will continue to pursue in the years ahead. That extends to the youth vote as well.
“We’re working every day to grow participation and interest in our electoral process, and to help people understand why voting is so important, especially for those historically underrepresented in elections,” said Romero. “Through our ever-evolving research and data tools, we’re doing all we can to inform efforts aimed at moving the needle toward 100% participation—one election, one vote at a time.”
Research Assistant Professor