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Elections Data in Context: Interview with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert

craig gilbert headshotOE: What is your beat and what kinds stories do you report on?

CG: I cover Washington for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel but also write a blog about elections, public opinion and political trends with a pretty heavy Wisconsin focus. It’s called The Wisconsin Voter. The majority of my work is for the blog and most of what goes into the blog also runs in the print edition of the paper.

OE: How often do you use elections results in your stories, and why?

CG: I use election data all the time. We’ve had an inordinate number of elections in Wisconsin since 2010, including an explosion of recall fights without any real historical precedent in this country. Wisconsin is also typically a presidential battleground. I use election data to write about political trends nationally and inside the state. I write about turnout trends, and about the election process. Right now I’m doing a long-term research project for the paper in conjunction with a 6-month fellowship at the Marquette Law School. It’s about political polarization, and I’m relying pretty heavily on election data to make the case that metropolitan Milwaukee is an unusual and extreme example of a metro region polarized by party and deeply divided geographically between city and suburbs, with Democratic and Republican voters increasingly clustered in very partisan and very separate communities. I'm comparing voting patterns in Milwaukee to the other major metropolitan areas in the U.S. The project will look at how this came to be, and at the consequences of this kind of division.

OE: What processes do you go through now to access elections results? 

CG: I’ve purchased a lot of historical national and state data from Dave Leip’s US Election Atlas, which is incredibly useful, but only goes down to the county level. I recently discovered that Harvard and Stanford have a burgeoning project to publish precinct-level election data for most states. There’s obviously the election data that’s made available by state and county governments.

OE: How long does this take, and how many people are involved? 

CG: In the case of many of these sources, getting the data into a form that’s convenient for analysis, and building election databases around the numbers, can be labor-intensive. I generally do it myself, although for my current project I’m working with a political scientist, Charles Franklin, who is at the Marquette Law School.

OE: Do you feel like the information that you are able to access now is comprehensive and reliable for your purposes?

CG: No, not comprehensive. There are gaps, mainly when you get down below the county level and want to work with data at the level of municipalities and voting wards. The differences between how states report this information are vast. Wisconsin is pretty good, fortunately for me. You can get a lot of geographic detail. But some states are horrible. In many states, only county data is available. It’s amazing to me how difficult it is to get presidential elections results for many major American cities (as opposed to counties), for example. Some cities like Milwaukee and Chicago post this data routinely. Others don’t and all you get is data for the county they are located in.

OE: How would a project like OpenElections change your process?

CG: Anything that would standardize the data and provide the kind of geographic detail – wards and municipalities – mentioned above would be very helpful.

OE: Would our project make it possible for you to do more with election results. How?

CG: You could do a lot more to compare voting trends and patterns from state to state, city to city, etc. You could also write about voting trends at the local level, which is where people live. People don’t think of themselves as residents of counties, but of towns, cities and neighborhoods.

OE: Do you have any particular requests for our project that would make your work more effective?

CG: It would be nice if the election data were coded by county for sure, and coded in a way that allowed you to aggregate by municipality and congressional district. It would be nice to have results for president, governor and senator included in the project. And of course, all in Excel.

OE: In an ideal world, how far back would you like to have historical results available?

CG: In an ideal world, the 1970s, but that’s asking a lot. The 1990s would be nice.

Craig Gilbert is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Washington Bureau Chief and author of "The Wisconsin Voter" political blog. Gilbert has covered national and state politics for the paper since 1990, and has written extensively about the electoral battle for the crucial swing states of the upper Midwest. He is currently a fellow at the Marquette Law School working on a research project on polarization. He was a 2009-10 Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where he studied public opinion, survey research, voting behavior and statistics. He previously worked for the Miami Herald, the Kingston (NY) Daily Freeman and was a speechwriter for New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Gilbert has a B.A. in History from Yale University.