Nieman Foundation at Harvard
ProPublica’s new “50 states” commitment builds on a decade-plus of local news partnerships
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Nov. 7, 2016, 11:14 a.m.

More than a thousand reporters and students are collectively covering voting problems on Election Day

Through the collaborative reporting project Electionland, outlets from across the country are coming together to report on issues like voter ID laws and long wait times.

At 2:54 p.m. last Monday, Houston Chronicle investigative reporter Matt Dempsey received a tip: Voters in Southeast Houston were being told they couldn’t vote, even though they had identification that complied with Texas’s voter ID law.

The report came from Electionland, the collaborative reporting project, led by ProPublica and six other organizations that is covering voting access across the country. Electionland is publishing the reporting on its own website and sharing leads with other outlets to cover on their own platforms.

The Houston tip originated with Electionland partner Election Protection, a project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law that lets people report voting problems by phone. Electionland then passed the information along to the Chronicle and to Houston’s Univision affiliate, the two local news orgs participating in the project.

The Chronicle followed up on the tip. An elections official in Harris County, where Houston is located, said there were no problems with voter IDs. Electionland then sent the Chronicle more instances of ID issues and long waits in the county. Chronicle reporters who went to the polling places identified in the tips witnessed problems with signage and poll workers providing incorrect information to voters. On Wednesday, the paper published its story. That wouldn’t have been possible without Electionland, Dempsey said.

“To know what specific areas are having problems and to be able to send reporters to those specific areas is so much more effective and efficient than saying, ‘Go out and go to a bunch of polling places and find voters who’ve had issues voting,'” Dempsey said. “This way, you’re starting with specifics. You’re starting from the idea of voter complaints.”

More than 450 journalists from about 250 news organizations in 47 states (plus Washington, D.C.), and students from 14 journalism schools, are participating in Electionland. In all, more than 1,100 people are involved in the collaboration.

The project is free for the outlets to participate in; they just need to properly credit Electionland in their reporting. The project will culminate on November 8, Election Day, with more than 100 journalists working out of a newsroom at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Electionland launched in October as early voting began across the country. Because ProPublica is an investigative outlet, it normally doesn’t cover breaking news on Election Day, but it conceived of the project as a way for it to cover the election in real time.

“When we started this, what we had in mind was a story that looked at the phenomena of long lines, election administration, and provisional balloting,” said Scott Klein, ProPublica deputy managing editor. But interest in the project really took off once Republican nominee Donald Trump began hinting that the election was rigged.

Many of the groups working with ProPublica have developed tools for reporting on election issues. First Draft, working with the student journalists, is leading content verification; the Google News Lab is analyzing search trends and data; and the USA Today Network and Univision are using their affiliates across the United States to report on tips that Electionland receives and verifies.

On Election Day, CUNY will host more than 100 journalists in its New York newsroom, and much of the fact-checking and social media verification will take place there. Once reports are confirmed, they’ll be sent out to the local reporters around the country. Reporters at CUNY will be able to broadcast live on TV, radio, and Facebook.

The early voting period has served as a dry run for the student journalists, said Andrew Mendelson, associate dean of CUNY’s journalism school.

“The students are learning these amazing skills in verification, in brainstorming the keywords that are going to be really useful for finding these concerns out there. Is it ‘voting violations?’ Most people don’t speak in that language, so then you have think about ‘long lines,’ ‘rigged,’ whatever the words are. You need to figure out how people could spell it incorrectly on social media,” Mendelson said.

The team is using resources like Google Trends; Facebook Signal; Dataminr; Check, a tool created by Meedan to verify and source social media posts; and Slack to collaborate.

WNYC also developed some original tools for the project. The public radio station repurposed a tool it built for New York municipal elections that allows voters to send SMS text messages detailing their voting experience to the newsroom. As of last week, Electionland had received about 1,000 tips through this process, said John Keefe, WNYC’s senior editor for data news. The texting service allows journalists to follow up with potential sources in English, Spanish, or Chinese.

“We’re hoping it will serve as an early warning system about the kinds of problems we might see,” Keefe said. “And for those who allow us to follow up, the coolest part is that we can text them, have a conversation, even call them and put them on the air.”

WNYC developer Alan Palazzolo also built Landslide, a dashboard that collects and organizes all the information the Electionland coalition receives via text, online forms, and elsewhere. People on the Electionland team can then sort the responses by area. “That was built from scratch in the last two weeks,” Keefe said.

ProPublica has been organizing daily “community calls” to help participating outlets prepare for their coverage. “We’re looking at issues that we won’t necessarily be tracking on Election Day itself, but that still affect people’s ballot access,” said Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica’s director of business development and a former Nieman Fellow. One call, for instance, centered around the issues that students face in trying to vote: “Absentee ballots, not being able to register with a P.O. box or a university mail address, all kinds of little election administration things that keep young and first-time voters from actually casting ballots.”

While Electionland’s resources are impressive, it can be challenging to add the information into the flow of daily reporting at an already busy time. Mary Jo Pitzl, The Arizona Republic’s state government reporter, reported last week on long waits at early voting locations in the Phoenix area. Pitzl has participated in some Electionland conference calls, but didn’t end up using Electionland resources for her story. “They launched this at a busy time, with reporters who are busy,” she said. “I’ve got to report it to our readers, the people who are affected. I don’t have time to report it to Electionland.”

One of the goals of the project is to promote local reporting, but a number of national outlets have joined as well. ProPublica reporters will be focused on national stories, and outlets such as ABC News, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and BuzzFeed News are all involved.

ProPublica and Electionland are preparing for the possibility that the election might not be called on Election Day, but once the race is over, Klein said they’re going to begin thinking of what’s next. They’ll have an immense amount of nationwide data on voting issues that they could use for future stories, and Klein said they’d like to potentially organize large-scale collaborations like this in the future.

“We can imagine doing things in the short team, but also in 2018 and 2020,” Klein said. “Speak to me again on November 9, but we’ve learned how to cover an election this way and I would love to do more.”

Photo of early voting in Allen County, Indiana, on November 1, 2016 by Allen County Public Library used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 7, 2016, 11:14 a.m.
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