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July 22, 2015, 11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The new Knight News Challenge winners want to make voting easier and election data clearer

The Des Moines Register, the Associated Press, and WNYC are among organizations receiving a total of $3.2 million for projects designed to increase voter turnout and develop more tools to analyze campaign finance disclosures.

An archive of campaign speeches, improved exit polling, and technology designed to make voting more accessible are among some of the ideas just announced as winners in the latest round of the Knight News Challenge, which focused on elections.

Twenty-two different projects will receive a total of $3.2 million in funding from the Knight Foundation and partners like the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Rita Allen Foundation. (Disclosure: Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab, though not through the News Challenge.)

As Knight described it when they introduced the latest contest: “For this challenge, we want to discover ideas and projects that better inform and inspire voters, as well as make the election process more fun and accessible for individuals.”

Ten of the projects in this round of the News Challenge will receive between $200,000 and $525,000. The twelve remaining projects will receive $35,000 each as part of the Knight Prototype Fund, which provides seed investment to budding ideas in media, information, or technology.

“The winning projects offer the opportunity to advance journalism innovation, while helping to ensure voters have the information they need to make decisions at the polls and become more involved and engaged in the issues that affect their communities,” Jennifer Preston, Knight’s vice president for journalism, said in a news release.

There are plenty of media companies in the mix of projects, including The Des Moines Register, the Associated Press, WNYC, the Orlando Sentinel, and more. Several plan to use funding from Knight to help shape coverage of the 2016 elections or to move forward projects on improving voter turnout and participation.

While the AP wants to develop a better system for exit polling, the Register is focused on a project that would use “a series of public events and initiatives that use social media to draw millennial attention to issues and candidates.”

Sally Buzbee, Washington D.C. bureau chief for the AP, is overseeing the polling project. With more people voting early, exit polling has become less effective, she said over email. But people’s changing technology habits are also a factor:

Voters are getting harder to reach because more people choose to carry only a cell phone or decline to answer calls from pollsters. Innovation is required to ensure our work continues to be accurate and complete into the future. It’s worth noting that these rapid changes in Americans’ behavior are affecting all of polling: Pollsters have already turned to surveys conducted online as possible ways to bridge the gap, and we see online panels as a starting point for our experiments.

Others News Challenge winners are extensions of existing work being done by media companies.

Last year, journalists from the Los Angeles Times, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Stanford’s Computational Journalism Lab joined forces to create the California Civic Data Coalition. The early goal was to create apps that make it easier for journalists to make sense of data like campaign finance reports. The coalition is receiving $250,000 in the News Challenge to continuing building open source tools to make campaign data more accessible.

Last year, Ben Welsh, a database producer at the Times, told the Lab it made more sense for the organizations to combine resources to fight a shared problem rather than spend time competing:

“We want to compete on who can do the better deep dive, who can ask the smarter question, who can be more aggressive about getting the story. We don’t want to compete on who can unzip and link together 76 crappy database tables,” Welsh said then.

Today, Welsh said the Knight money will be used to “bring on a full-time developer who will team with participating newsrooms and Stanford students to lead the project through Election Day 2016,” as well as a series of code sprints.

Knight has already announced that the next round of the News Challenge will begin this fall and will focus on data.

Here’s the full list of winners for the Knight News Challenge on elections, including 12 projects receiving funding through the Prototype Fund.

2016 Political Ad Tracker

Award: $200,000
Organization: Internet Archive
Project leads: Roger Macdonald, Tracey Jaquith
Twitter: @internetarchive, @r_macdonald, @tracey_pooh,

Voters are exposed to large amounts of campaign advertising, especially in key swing states. Though these ads are designed to influence and sway votes, little information is provided about their background and accuracy. To hold candidates accountable and bring more transparency to the voting process, the Internet Archive, with the world’s largest open archive of TV news, will create a public library of TV news and political ads from key 2016 primary election regions. The library will be paired with nonpartisan fact-checking and other analysis from PolitiFact, the University of Pennsylvania’s, The Center for Public Integrity and others. Ads will be tracked along with facts about their accuracy, source, frequency and context. These widely distributed library resources will provide voters with trustworthy information and encourage greater participation in the political process.

Campaign Hound

Award: $150,000
Organization: Reese News Lab, University of North Carolina
Project leads: John Clark and Sara Peach
Twitter: @johnclark, @sarapeach

Few citizens have direct contact with their candidates and elected officials. As such, the media and other sources are what keep them informed about politicians both on the campaign trail and once they are in office. To give citizens more information and help journalists improve their political coverage, the Reese News Lab will create a searchable archive of campaign speech transcripts that provides users with customized keyword alerts. It will use crowdsourcing and computer natural language processing to gather recordings of speeches and generate transcripts, enabling subscribers to search for exact words spoken by politicians. Users can also monitor political speeches remotely, providing easy access. In addition, it will alert subscribers when custom keywords are spoken on the campaign trail. The archive will be piloted in North Carolina.

California Civic Data Coalition

Award: $250,000
Organization: California Civic Data Coalition, a partnership of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Stanford University, The Center for Investigative Reporting, and The Los Angeles Times
Project leads: Ben Welsh, Cheryl Phillips, Aaron Williams, Jennifer LaFleur
Twitter: @palewire, @cephillips, @aboutaaron, @j_la28

Campaign finance data in statehouses across America is hard to organize, access and understand. Making it easier to find and use this raw, machine-readable data can help to hold politicians accountable and enable deeper analysis of the influence of money in politics. The California Civic Data Coalition will engage data journalists from The Los Angeles Times, Stanford University, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Center for Investigative Reporting to lead an open-source effort to refine this raw data into an easy-to-use product. The work will serve as a model for other states and join an ongoing effort to consolidate money-in-politics data from statehouses across America.

Civic Engagement Toolkit for Local Election Officials

Award: $400,000
Organization: Center for Technology and Civic Life
Project leads: Whitney May, Tiana Epps-Johnson, Whitney Quesenbery
Twitter: @HelloCTCL, @tianaej, @whitneymaybe, @civicdesign, @whitneyq

Local governments produce information that is important to voters. However, there are few communications avenues for people to access this information and engage with their local governments to help shape policy and decision-making. To tackle this issue, the Center for Technology and Civic Life will develop a civic engagement toolkit, designed in concert with local election officials. The kit will include a set of tools for election offices such as an election website template, visual icons and illustrations, resource allocation calculators, and other tools. It will help local officials identify how to best use communication tools, and measure the reach and impact of the information they are sharing.

Informed Voting From Start to Finish

Award: $200,000
Organization: e.thePeople
Project leads: Seth Flaxman, Kathryn Peters, Whitney Quesenbery and Alex Quinn
Twitter: @etppl, @civicdesign, @whitneyq, @sethflaxman, @katyetc, @turbovote

Lack of information about the voting process, candidates and issues, especially in local elections, can limit voter participation and prevent people from making informed choices at the polls. Informed Voting From Start to Finish will combine the voter services and timely reminders of TurboVote with local guides from e.thePeople, to provide comprehensive voting support, including registration assistance, election reminders, poll locators, explanations of contests and ballot questions, and candidate information.

Inside the 990 Treasure Trove

Award: $525,000
Organization: The Center for Responsive Politics in partnership with GuideStar
Project leads: Robert Maguire
Twitter: @RobertMaguire_

The Center for Responsive Politics wants to help journalists and the public better understand who is funding campaigns and the sources of so-called “dark money,” the funds that certain nonprofits can spend to back candidates and issues without having to reveal where the donations are coming from. In fact, the amount of dark money in campaigns has grown exponentially — from $6 million in 2004 to $309 million in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The center has developed a system for tracking and processing information on these donations from difficult-to-access IRS 990 forms, and matching this information with Federal Elections Commission data. With new funding, the center will partner with GuideStar to retrieve greater volumes of this information more quickly and comprehensively, and create a database that any journalist can access.

Revive My Vote

Award: $230,000
Organization: Marshall-Wythe Law Foundation
Project leads: Mark Listes and Rebecca Green
Twitter: @ReviveMyVote

Virginians with felony convictions face real obstacles in restoring their right to vote. Those who have already applied to restore voting rights face a severe backlog of applications. In addition, reaching out to those who have not yet applied is very difficult since Virginia maintains no comprehensive contact list of eligible citizens. Revive My Vote seeks to address both obstacles. To reduce the backlog, the group will organize and train local law students to remotely process these applications, speeding the process. In addition, the project will create a digital platform where successful applicants will inspire prospective applicants with success stories and information about rights restoration will be disseminated.

Sharp Insight

Award: $250,000
Organization: Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program
Project lead: Duerward Beale
Twitter: @YOACAPphilly

While barbershops have long been trusted spaces in the African-American community, this project seeks to build on that stature by recruiting barbers as voting advocates. The Youth Outreach Adolescent Community Awareness Program and its partners will recruit Philadelphia barbers, educate them on rights restoration and other voting issues, and ask them to help disseminate voting information. The program will provide barbers with incentives for getting their male customers to take surveys, read nonpartisan election information and continually discuss the importance of civic participation. The barbers who enroll will have their names listed on a radio partner’s website, with a special radio promotion going to the shop that disseminates the most information.

The Next Generation Beyond Exit Polls

Award: $250,000
Organization: The Associated Press
Project lead: Sally Buzbee, David Pace, Emily Swanson
Twitter: @AP, @AP_Politics, @SallyBuzbee, @EL_Swan, @dhpace

For years, the media, academics and the public have relied almost exclusively on exit polls to explain voter behavior and declare winners on national election nights. But with the growing number of early voters — and well-publicized recent errors in candidate estimates — many have questioned their accuracy. The Associated Press, in partnership with two national polling firms, is looking to develop less expensive methods to more accurately measure voter views. Two recent experiments have used online, probability-based panels to gauge voter sentiments in real time. The AP is looking to publicize the results, refine its methods and ultimately share new tools with other newsrooms.


Award: $325,000
Organization: Long Distance Voter
Project lead: Debra Cleaver
Twitter: @debracleaver, @absenteeballots

Long Distance Voter wants to increase voter turnout by making it possible to sign up for an absentee ballot using smartphones. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than 25 percent of all ballots were cast by mail in 2014. Three states, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, have transitioned to a standard vote-by-mail system, with all three experiencing higher turnout and lower election administration costs. Voters in other states currently need to print and mail their forms in order to submit absentee ballots, which is difficult for many in an increasingly digital age. Long Distance Voter will use DocuSign’s electronic signature technology to enable citizens to complete, sign and mail their absentee ballots directly from their smartphones.

Prototype Fund winners

Judge Your Judges by WNYC (Project leads: Kat Aaron, @kataaron, and John Keefe, @WNYC, @jkeefe; New York): Enabling people to make more knowledgeable decisions about judicial elections through a tool that will provide key information, insights and context about candidates, their views and the court system.

Lenses by NYC Media Lab (Project leads: Amy Chen, Justin Hendrix, Kareem Amin, R. Luke DuBois, and Mark Hansen, @nycmedialab; New York): Enabling journalists and other storytellers to transform and visualize data to build interactive election stories through an open-source, mobile-friendly tool. by Free Law Project (Project leads: Michael Lissner, @mlissner, and Brian Carver, @brianwc; Berkeley, Calif.): Helping to make judicial elections more transparent by creating online profiles of judges that show campaign contributions, judicial opinions and biographies.

Prompt Data Query by Center for Responsive Politics (Project lead: Sarah Bryner, @aksarahb; Washington, D.C.): Bringing more transparency and accountability to elections, through an automated, interactive tool that will give users access to real-time campaign finance data.

Silent Targeting, Loud Democracy by University of Wisconsin (Project lead: Young Mie Kim, @DiMAP_UW; Madison, Wis.): Promoting transparency in elections by prototyping an investigative service that tracks political ads that use online microtargeting to reveal how political action committees, parties and candidates target individual voters based on their personal information.

Tabs on Tallahassee by the Orlando Sentinel (Project leads: Charles Minshew, @CharlesMinshew, and Andrew Gibson, @AndrewGibson27; Orlando, Fla.): Fostering government transparency by creating a searchable database of the voting records of Florida lawmakers for newsrooms across the state.

Up for Debate Ohio! by the Jefferson Center (Project lead: Kyle Bozentko, @JeffersonCtr; Akron, Ohio): Increasing political knowledge in Ohio through community deliberation, online engagement and the media to provide citizens the opportunity to discuss issues and campaigns thoughtfully and civilly.

Voter’s Edge by MapLight (Project lead: Michael Canning, @votersedge; Berkeley, Calif.): Providing in-depth voter information that is easily accessible, neutral and factual on one platform; the mobile-optimized guide provides voter information on federal, state and local elections, including endorsements, candidate biographies, ballot measure summaries, top funder lists, videos, news, and more.

Accessible Voting for Everyone by University of Florida (Project lead: Juan Gilbert, @DrJuanGilbert, @FloridaEngineer; Gainesville, Fla.): Making voting easy and accessible to all through an open source electronic voting system that allows citizens, including those with disabilities, to cast ballots by actions such as tapping a touchscreen or speaking into a microphone.

Erase the Line by D.C. Board of Elections (Project lead: Margarita Mikhaylova, @dcboee; Washington, D.C): Helping election officials improve the voting process by creating a digital platform that will document wait-time information at polling places across the nation.

Rhode Island Civic Fellowship by Rhode Island Secretary of State (Project lead: Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, @RISecState; Providence, R.I.): Encouraging more millennials to vote through a statewide civic fellowship program designed to inspire, recruit and train them to get involved in shaping voting and elections in their communities.

The Iowa Electorate by The Des Moines Register (Project lead: Amalie Nash, @AmalieNash; Des Moines, Iowa): Engaging young voters in the Iowa caucuses by sponsoring a series of public events and initiatives that use social media to draw millennial attention to issues and candidates.

Photo of “I voted” stickers by Joe Hall used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 22, 2015, 11 a.m.
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