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Senate Finally Seeds an XML Feed of Roll Call Votes

In another exciting development for congressional transparency and openness, the Senate Rules Committee has decided to publish Senate roll call votes in a public XML feed. This XML data from the Senate will allow the public, the press, and advocates to find and analyze roll call votes []. Public access to Senate voting records- in their complete form- is an important tool to help citizens track their representation in Washington, D.C.

Making votes available to the public through XML feeds may not sound very exciting. After all, the Senate already releases voting information, but not in a format that allows users to search for their lawmaker or filter votes by member. Voting data is also available from third parties compiling the data, but often have incomplete or inaccurate information.

XML is a structured data format, allowing the data to be used in many ways. Indeed, the release of government information should always be in a standard format that is easily accessible and re-usable by the public; well structured XML certainly qualifies.

Yes, this information currently exists on third-party websites, but that data was scraped from Senate websites and isn’t always be accurate or up to date. Getting public feeds of voting records in XML from the Senate has been one of the goals of the Open House Project since 2007. Prior to these Rules Committee instructions, the Senate has withheld a public feed of all Senate votes, musing that the complexities of congressional votes must be presented by each Senator in the context of that bill, or not presented at all, if the Senator did not want to release that information. Instead, the Senate votes were made public to voting records in the form of roll call websites.

The House of Representatives has published their voting records in XML feeds for years, and these files have been used to help media cover legislation and to create visualizations for the news. The Senate has lagged in adopting public data release for voting records because some Senators want to be able to present their voting records to their constituents themselves- so that they can provide the context behind any given voting decision that would be lost in a simple “yea or nay” accounting. However, as the Senators requesting public access noted, the public can interpret votes themselves, and Senators can still provide the context.

We’re excited to see what new tools come from the release of information. Hopefully, this is just the next step in bulk data release, and towards better transparency – and hopefully, the Rules Committee will choose to make Congressional Research Service reports available next.