Urban politics scholars have for some time lamented the notable absence of a database on local elections in the US. Given the large number of cases (nearly 90,000 local governments) and considerable institutional and contextual variation across and within local governments, one might assume that the study of US local elections is an area of substantial scholarly investigation. And yet this is a relatively unexplored area of inquiry. The absence of scholarly research on local elections is significant, since 96% of the nearly half million elected officials in the US represent local rather than state or federal jurisdictions, and since municipalities have the largest share of elected officials, with 27% (US Census Bureau 1995).

The Local Elections in America Project (LEAP) will accomplish two goals. First, it offers a path-breaking methodology to create a centralized, comprehensive, and cost effective local elections database that will provide unparalleled opportunities for learning about local elections and the political, racial and socio-demographic features of American cities. The software application will systematically collect, digitize, and disseminate data on city council and mayoral elections, employing an automated system that will continue to collect elections data long into the future without ongoing external funding. Moreover, the application will be highly flexible and could therefore be adapted to handle different types of elections (e.g., school board or judicial contests) or units of analysis (precincts).

The second goal of this project is to use the LEAP database as the foundation for research that focuses on the centrality of race/ethnicity in local electoral politics. The increasing racial/ethnic heterogeneity of the US population is nowhere more evident than at the local level, which means that local elections provide the best arena for testing a whole range of theories. This component of the project focuses on the emergence and political ambition of minority candidates in American politics and the role of candidate and voter race/ethnicity in the process and outcome of American elections. To date almost no studies have examined the conditions under which minority candidates run for office and there is little in the way of theory to guide understanding of the "supply side" of minority representation. Is the lack of minority representation in elective office due to the defeat of the minority candidate or the absence of minority candidates? No study has even ventured a guess at this question. Other specific questions this project will address include: Under what conditions do African Americans and Latinos decide to run for local office, and how is their "path to office" different than that of their white counterparts? And, once the minority candidates are victorious, what is the trajectory of their political careers? How does candidate race/ethnicity shape the competitiveness of municipal elections (including primaries)?

LEAP represents an unprecedented advancement in the areas of data collection and dissemination. The project creates the much needed infrastructure to describe systematically, as never before, the landscape of local politics and elections, to test empirically an unprecedented range of social science theories that have heretofore been little studied in the context of local politics, and to establish an automated and ongoing process of data collection. The database will provide a crucial corollary to current databases and open up local elections to scholars outside of urban politics. Making the LEAP data available via an interactive website will maximize access and use for social scientists, educators, and stakeholder groups.

This award was partially funded by the Office of Cyberinfrastructure (OCI) CF21 Venture Fund for promoting the reuse of Cyberinfrastructure (CI) elements.

Project Report

Why LEAP? In the United States, local governments make up over 99% of all governments: There are nearly 90,000 local governments and more than a half million local elected officials in the United States (96% of all elected officials are local officials). Every year, hundreds of thousands of candidates run for local office. LEAP is the only enterprise that systematically collects and compiles data on these elections. We have also been engaged in an auxiliary data collection project that involves the coding of municipal charters to create indicators of cities’ electoral structures and governing arrangements. The Innovation Over the last three years, LEAP has developed a suite of software application tools to systematically collect, digitize and disseminate data on elections across the United States. LEAP’s innovation is in creating a digital archive of past election results, as well as automating data collection for current and future elections. In other words, once the infrastructure is developed, we can continue to collect data on local elections indefinitely, at minimum cost. In addition, we are in the process of developing a state-of-the art website to enable easy access and widespread dissemination of data (www.leap-elections.org). Products and Services Our main data product is candidate-level election returns. Clients can request data along three parameters: geography (e.g. all municipal elections in Louisiana), office name (e.g. all Mayors between 1990 and 2000), or election years (e.g. all local elections in 2008). We have added Census indicators to these data as well, and thus clients may also ask for more specialized data (for example, all mayoral elections between 1990 and 2000 in cities with a population greater than 25,000). Last, we have coded municipal charters to develop a handbook of cities’ electoral structures and governing arrangements that can easily be merged with the elections data via geocodes. A number of fields are included in the dataset, including: incorporation date, number of city legislative seats and electoral structures, name and functions of city executives, election dates, and initiative and referendum allowances. In addition to our main data product, we offer analysis and consulting services for individuals or organizations interested in customized reports or spatial analysis. Outcomes: Research, Scholarship and a Resource for Scholars LEAP falls within the new big data revolution, merging new sources of data with new technologies, analytics and possibilities for collaborative research. Moreover, it opens up important avenues as it bridges academia, research and the university community. First, it provides a unique opportunity to recruit graduate students interested in local election studies and train students in the data process. Second, LEAP has a potential to gain national prominence. As noted earlier, LEAP is the only comprehensive database that archives local election results, and will continue to do so into the future. Last, the LEAP database and website will provide unparalleled opportunities for learning about and analyzing local elections and the political, racial and socio-demographic features of American cities, towns, school and special districts. LEAP will enable social scientists to investigate research questions that have heretofore been little studied in the context of local politics.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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Rice University
United States
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