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Sept. 3, 2020, 9:44 a.m.
Reporting & Production

The Ballot aims to cover every 2020 election — except for the one in the U.S.

“I often say to the writers, ‘Write this as if it were a letter to your friend.'”

For many journalists in the United States and around the world, the next 60 days will be filled with polling stories, debate previews and recaps, voting guides, pandemic updates, and lots of push notifications, all leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Madeleine Schwartz, the founder and editor of The Ballot, knows there will be no shortage of U.S. election coverage before or after November 3. That’s why, since it launched in February, The Ballot has skipped the Trump vs. Biden race altogether. Instead, it’s laser-focused on the (many!) other countries that have already voted or will head to the polls this year. The plan at the outset was to cover nearly 70 elections, but many scheduled for 2020 have been postponed due to the pandemic.

“We have this extraordinary series of changes happening around the world; it sometimes feels like you could pick a point on a map and you would see almost the same story,” Schwartz said. But political coverage often doesn’t “take account of what’s happening outside of U.S. borders, so I was trying to think of a way to provide a corrective. Then the idea came of ‘what if we covered every 2020 election except for the U.S.?'”

Schwartz, a journalist based in Berlin, started The Ballot with the prize money from the European Press Prize, which she won in 2019 in the opinion category for her Guardian piece “The end of Atlanticism: has Trump killed the ideology that won the cold war?” She and seven other editors work as volunteers. The donations that come in are put toward paying freelance writers.

After covering different elections in other countries, Schwartz found that the America-centric focus of U.S. press’ foreign policy coverage can be inaccurate and misleading. Earlier this year, she wrote in CJR:

Journalists will likely point to the economic pressures that drive decisions about how and where to focus coverage. When there are cutbacks, foreign bureaus are often the first to go; increasingly, the work of foreign correspondents is left to freelancers. But it’s not just a money problem. The paradigm of the American media puts American politics at the center, out of a belief that American politics steer the world. In 2020, however, that’s no longer true, if it ever was. The US does not set the agenda for world policy. Moreover, no matter who our president is, our future as Americans depends nearly as much on who wins elections in other countries. That’s the reality of a world that is truly interconnected.

The Ballot is a sort of digital magazine, publishing one issue of three to five stories roughly every two weeks. (A new issue comes out Thursday.) The website is minimalistic on purpose, web designer Lucy Andersen said. Schwartz wanted the look to straddle the lines of a print and digital publication. The images for stories are just the country flags, the font is one that can accommodate characters from different languages, the lines are clean, and there’s a high contrast between the colors and sections for easy readability and navigability.

Schwartz and the other editors look for writers who are well-versed and/or well-known journalists who live in the countries they’re reporting on. This helps avoid parachute journalism, and each writer brings with them a built-in audience from their country.

“It’s important to me that the stories not be really dry. You can find good wire reporting about a lot of parts of the world,” Schwartz said. “But what was really interesting to me is how people are experiencing these changes — what they’re seeing, what they’re thinking about it — in a way that I don’t think always comes through in the shorter and drier form. I often just say to the writers, ‘Write this as if it were a letter to your friend,’ but of course because they’re also excellent journalists, they’re also bringing in all of the things that they’ve reported on, that they’re seeing, and that they know. We wanted it to feel really accessible and to be a kind of conversation in a way.”

One story that worked particularly well in that format was written by an anonymous writer in Iran, where conservatives swept the parliamentary elections in February. “The Islamic Republic used to be described as a curious mix of theocracy and democracy. The democracy part of the mixture, however constrained it was before, seems to be shrinking by the day,” the writer wrote. “‘It’s ridiculous,’ a 56-year-old woman who works in a government agency told me about the past few months. ‘It all seems like what you would see in a badly exaggerated movie that you’d walk out on.'”

Another story is a Q&A with an NGO president and lawyer in Guinea, where in April the government published a new constitution that was different from the one that had been voted on during a national referendum in March. The conversation reads like a discussion, in person or over text message, between two friends. “You can’t just change the constitution that was submitted to a public referendum as soon as it’s published!” Frederic Loua, the interviewee, said.

“A lot of what we’ve covered hasn’t been widely reported in English and or has been reported really sporadically,” Schwartz said. “A lot of the places that we’re hearing from don’t get a lot of air time in American media, or [if you want to read about them] you would have to already know what you were looking for, as opposed to it coming to you. [Coming to you] is part of the advantage of a site with a bi-weekly newsletter.”

So far, about half of The Ballot’s readers are from the United States. The other half comes from all over the world. Since The Ballot’s essentially launched into the pandemic, it’s leaned into virtual events. “We had a really interesting one where about the future of cities where we brought together some urban planners in the United States and some urban planners in Seoul,” Schwartz said. “It was a multi–time zone live event that actually took place on two different days, depending on where you were geographically, and those bring in a really international audience of people, coming in from five continents and chatting.”

With just three months left in 2020 (reader, I gasped too) and the donations still flowing in, Schwartz said that The Ballot will expand its coverage to explore more political stories that are focused on what different countries can learn from each other on a range of issues, from economic policy to climate change.

“I think a magazine is not only a publication, it’s also a community,” Schwartz said, “and all the more so when you’re bringing in people from different parts of the world to talk about problems that affect all of us.”

Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash.

POSTED     Sept. 3, 2020, 9:44 a.m.
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