We are a voter list company. Every ten years new political boundaries are written for federal and state offices. All of the corresponding shapefiles are ESRI ready.

One of our clients is getting voter data from us and wanted to supplement it with shapefiles. We do not use ESRI ourselves nor do we understand the raw data and polygons as we are quite illiterate in this area---we simply are giving the raw ESRI data to an end user.

We sent the folder of shapefiles to a client who is also unschooled in ESRI and now they want to "see the Polygons". See sample data that we set the client at:


My questions is the same as I posed to them: can they not "see the polygons" themselves from the shape data that we provided? Educate me on how these shapefiles are are to be employed.

NEW as of Oct 10: Hi @Kirk, @RyanDalton, @Rayner, @PROBERT, @Aaron, I understand this is all free advice here in this wonderful exchange but I want to say that if what I am asking is above and beyond free, we can discuss offline a small consultative gig for you by contacting us at: [email protected]. But here is my specific challenge: The client has 50,000 complete addresses across the US. They want to link each address with its corresponding congressional, state senate and state house district. I am looking for step by step---aka, For Dummies--- instructions on how the client may accomplish this task on a regular basis using the shapefiles mentioned earlier. For example, what software, what to load, how to import & export.

  • 4
    Bea aware that the name shape file is a misnomer. The shapefile format "is actually a set of several files. Three individual files are mandatory to store the core data that comprises a shapefile: ".shp", ".shx", ".dbf", and other extensions on a common prefix name (e.g., "lakes.*").". The viewer you choose to read them must be able to consolidate the multiple files into a single object. Attempting to read the *.shp alone will not work. See recommendations below for a suitable viewer for a shapefile. Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 18:53
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    RE: Your October 10th edit, you should submit that as a separate question rather than editing this one. Or search the board for "geocoding", that's what the process of taking addresses and converting them to geographic locations is called.
    – Dan C
    Commented Oct 10, 2012 at 20:12

4 Answers 4


You might suggest using ArcGIS Explorer Desktop. A free download here.

This help page describes how to view shapefiles.


I downloaded and unzipped a sample from MN. The shapefile was intact with all of the associated files including the projection information. Furthermore, the attributes are correct in showing eight districts in MN.

As @Kirk pointed out, the problem is probably what software to use in order to view these .shp files. I would recommend downloading the open-source QGIS. You tube has a good video on Opening and looking at Census shapefiles on QGIS


A 'shapefile' is actually 3 (or more) files. An SHP, a DBF and an SHX file. Most also have a PRJ file. These files together form what is called a 'shapefile'. In order to view the contents of a shapefile (in your case polygons), it is necessary to use some sort of GIS software program.

There are lots of choices when it comes to Desktop GIS software.


Your best bet for free software (assuming you're running Windows) is

Quantum GIS (QGIS) http://www.qgis.org/

Standalone installer is the best option if you're a newcomer http://hub.qgis.org/projects/quantum-gis/wiki/Download

MapWindow GIS http://www.mapwindow.org/ MapWindow is a bit less complicated than QGIS.

Download from here: http://mapwindow4.codeplex.com/releases

TatukGIS Viewer http://www.tatukgis.com/ Registration required before you can download.

Download from here: http://www.tatukgis.com/Downloads/TrialFreeVersions/Viewer.aspx

Hope this helps.

  • You all are extremely helpful. Can I change the names of the various SHP, DBF and SHX files provided I keep the extensions the same or will changing any part of the names cause the entire "shape file" to crash? In other words, does each sub file refer by name to the other sub files? Thank you. Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 19:44
  • @Anne The best practice would be to rename the shapefile in a GIS. QGIS Browser or Desktop will work perfectly for this purpose. As RyanDalton mentioned, the individual files form a single object in a GIS that you can then rename.
    – Aaron
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 20:20
  • Yes, you can safely rename a shapefile by changing the name of each of the files that make up the shapefile. They don't refer to each other by name. Make sure though to name them exactly the same.
    – Rayner
    Commented Oct 9, 2012 at 20:23
  • @AnneHorrigan, in case it wasn't perfectly clear before, you can rename a shapefile, but you need to have matching "basenames" for all files in the "shapefile". For example, if the file started out as "olddata".<shp|shx|dbf|etc> you would need to rename all of the files to "newdata".<shp|shx|dbf|etc>. Commented Oct 10, 2012 at 20:55

What about ArcGIS Online ? You can then export the shapefiles there and then send them the email to the clients and they can open it and view it ? You can choose whatever the basemap you like and overlay with the shapefiles. That is my 1 cent.

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