Hardin County, Iowa uses Google Sheets to report results on election night

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in November 2015. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!

Located in central Iowa -- halfway between the cities of Waterloo and Fort Dodge -- lies Hardin County. One of the Tuskegee Airmen hailed from here, and today the area serves as a major source of ethanol. More famously, much of the 1996 tornado blockbuster Twister was filmed in Hardin County, whose flat, Midwestern landscape provided the perfect backdrop for the cyclone drama. 

Although it might not exactly be the stuff of Hollywood cinema, the Hardin County Auditor’s office has a story of its own to tell. Jessica Lara -- who has served as County Auditor since September 2013 and was Deputy Auditor for 4 years prior to that -- is proud of the solution that her office has developed for reporting election night results. 

The Hardin County courthouse with local citizens relaxing in the lawn. Photo by Micah Cutler.

The Hardin County courthouse with local citizens relaxing in the lawn. Photo by Micah Cutler.

Hardin County is a fairly small election jurisdiction, with 11,840 registered voters and a range of between 9 and 14 precincts, depending on the type of election. The Auditor’s office has 2 full-time election staff members and 3 backup workers who assist with things like absentee voting and phone inquiries. 

But whether a jurisdiction is large or small, pushing election night results out to the public after the polls close is stressful work. Voters want to see the impact of their participation. Candidates are eager to see their prospects for victory. And local media representatives want facts for the election stories that they’re working on. Because it’s an important and demanding task, election officials want to make sure they get it done quickly and get it done right. 

And a few years ago, administrators in Hardin County decided that the old way of reporting election night results just wasn’t cutting it anymore. 

"We find that in the information age,” Jessica explains, “voters are wanting results as soon as polls close."

"We needed a method to report results that would be accurate yet timely. [In the past] [o]ur tabulating software would require all precincts [to] deliver the memory cards to our central location before results could be tallied and printed on reports. We needed something faster that did not involve the delay in hand delivering the results cards. This is how we developed our Election Results spreadsheet.”

Jessica Lara shows off her office's spreadsheet. Photo by Micah Cutler.

Jessica Lara shows off her office's spreadsheet. Photo by Micah Cutler.

How it works

The spreadsheet that Hardin County produced is built on familiar and free platforms: Google Docs and Google Sheets, both of which are part of Google’s web-based office suite. Jessica and her staff have used the spreadsheet to report election night results for about 6 years, and they love the fact that the platform is free, fast, and easy to use. 

The steps are simple, as Jessica explains: “On election night, once the polls close, the tabulators print paper results at each of our polling locations. The chairperson at each location then phones in the results to the Auditor’s office (Commissioner of Elections) and the information for each race including over/under and total number of voters. We use these numbers to manually proof that the numbers were heard and written down accurately. One employee then enters the results into the spreadsheet. Google Docs is continually updated every two to four minutes, so the results are nearly immediate in release.”

In addition to speeding things up, using Google Sheets allows Hardin County to publish election night results with “a more polished look,” explains IT/GIS Director Micah Cutler, who developed the spreadsheet format. Micah says that election staff experimented with various color schemes for the spreadsheet -- including a patriotic red, white, and blue look -- but ultimately settled on a more generic theme that was easy to read and that avoided any partisan colors. 

The election results spreadsheet in action

The election results spreadsheet in action

It’s not foolproof

Although using Google Sheets has made results reporting much faster and easier than before in Hardin County, Jessica says that great care still needs to be taken in the reporting process. 

For instance, she stresses that human error still has the potential to foul things up. She shared an experience when a mistake was made due to data entry. A candidate for office received 101 votes, but an election staff member just entered “1” into the spreadsheet. This meant that, for a short time, the wrong candidate appeared to be the winner of the race. The problem was spotted and corrected within 10 minutes, Jessica explains, but still, a few media outlets had already picked up the wrong information. Moving forward, the elections staff resolved to have just one dedicated staff member do data entry, thus reducing the chance of errors or accidental deletions. Results figures are now triple checked for accuracy. 

They also needed to figure out how to make their spreadsheets accommodate write-in candidates. To deal with this problem, they now make sure their spreadsheets have blank columns that can be used for write-ins, and when any write-in candidate earns at least 5% of the vote, the candidate’s name is added to the spreadsheet. Candidates are added and dropped as results hover near that 5% threshold. 

For the most part, working with Google Sheets requires the same kind of caution and attention to detail that results reporting normally demands. And as always, Jessica emphasizes, it’s important to include a “unofficial results” disclaimer until canvassing can be done to verify results officially.

Great results

Jessica and Micah are understandably proud of the platform they developed. Whereas some of the surrounding counties in Iowa can take as much as 2 hours to provide election results, Jessica says, Hardin County has become known for its quick reporting. 

"Two years ago,” she says with pride, “we were able to report results to the public in less than 11 minutes after the polls closed. We had reporters from radio stations that called to thank us for being so prompt!"

According to Jessica, this isn’t the first time that Hardin County has been recognized for running elections with innovation and boldness. Local lore remembers the election of 1863, when the first election in Jackson Township was held in an old saw mill, and every voter who cast a ballot was entitled to a drink from a keg of genuine whisky. The booze may no longer flow at the polls, but local elections continue to draw notice. 

Because it’s free, fast, and simple, the Google office suite has the potential to be a great solution to the headache that election night results can often cause. If you have questions about how using the Google spreadsheet has impacted the work of the Auditor’s office in Hardin County, email Jessica at jlara@hardincountyia.gov. With questions about the design and technical specifications of the spreadsheet, get in touch with Micah at mcutler@hardincountyia.gov.

Do you have any special method for publishing election night results that you’d like to tell us about? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org and share your experience.