Knight Foundation supports Rice University’s Local Elections in America Project with $218,000 to expand data collection nationally, help strengthen local democracy

HOUSTON — July 15, 2015 — The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today announced $218,000 in support to Rice University’s Local Elections in America Project, the most comprehensive database ever developed on local election information in the United States. Support will move the project to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, where it will become part of the newly launched Kinder Institute Center on Local Elections in America. The center’s goal is to increase turnout and participation in local elections by advancing research and supporting solution building.

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Local government in many cases has more immediate effects on the everyday lives of citizens than other levels of government — from jurisdiction over policing and public safety and schools to determining property taxes and funding for local amenities such as libraries and parks. Despite this fact, research on elections in major U.S. cities indicates low voter turnout for local elections. It is difficult for journalists, elections administrators, policymakers and others to address this problem without studying it; however, very little data exists.

Using the Local Elections in America Project software and database, the center will serve as the leading source for data, research and education about local elections in America. The center will promote greater knowledge and understanding of local elections in the United States, especially with regard to voter behavior and how electoral behavior affects local government outcomes. 

At present, the Local Elections in America Project database includes hundreds of thousands of election results and candidates from county, municipal, school board and special district races across 22 states. With Knight Foundation support, the center will work toward improving the project’s software and data-collection strategy to capture results from the remaining states and counties. Data collection will be expanded to include candidates’ race, ethnicity and gender as well as campaign platforms, finance and other information.

In addition, the center will conduct a broad range of research on local elections and support more study by spreading and publicizing the database widely. In particular, it will explore limited voter turnout, low numbers of candidates and the noncompetitive nature of local elections in certain jurisdictions, as well as ways to better engage citizens in civic life. The center will also spread research results extensively to foster policy change around the nation in local elections.

“Voting is perhaps the most important indicator of civic engagement and a healthy democracy,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives. “Low turnout for local elections means fewer people are involved in shaping their cities and contributing to decision-making. This work will help expand existing knowledge of local elections; it will provide a comprehensive lens into the landscape of local politics and help cities better understand how to build a culture of civic engagement.”

“In the United States, local governments make up over 99 percent of all governments, and every year hundreds of thousands of candidates run for local office,” said Melissa Marschall, the co-principal investigator of the Local Elections in America Project and a professor of political science at Rice. “The project is the only enterprise that systematically collects and compiles data on these elections. Knight Foundation support and the project’s new home at the Kinder Institute will provide for the expansion of the current database and engagement in a full-scale effort to use the database and research results to understand the process and outcomes of local elections in the United States.”

“With more empirically based evidence, policymakers and other stakeholders can go much further in identifying how to field more and better candidates, increase voter information about local candidates and local politics, stimulate interest in local campaigns, make elections more efficient and effective and ultimately create more participatory and vibrant local communities and healthier democracy in our nation’s cities and towns.”

“In order to make cities better, it’s vital to understand local elections,” said Bill Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute. “I’m thrilled that Melissa Marschall has chosen to bring this very powerful database to the Kinder Institute. Urban experts across the country will benefit from knowing more about the patterns in local elections.”

The Kinder Institute is currently broadening its focus to include several new program areas that align with local elections research efforts, including urban disparities, urban and metropolitan governance, and urban placemaking. More information on the institute is available at kinder.rice.edu.

Support for the Local Elections in America Project forms one part of the Knight Foundation’s efforts to invest in civic innovators who help cities attract and keep talented people, expand economic opportunity and create a culture of engagement. The foundation believes that designing places to achieve these goals is crucial to city success.

About the Kinder Institute Center on Local Elections in America

The Local Elections in America Project was created in 2010 by Marschall and co-principal investigator Paru Shah of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; initial support was provided by the National Science Foundation, Rice’s Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more information, visit knightfoundation.org.

CONTACTS:

David Ruth, Director of National Media Relations, 713-348-6327, [email protected]

Anusha Alikhan, director of communications, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 305-908-2677, [email protected]