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Votebeat will cover local election administration as a permanent newsroom
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Feb. 28, 2022, 2:34 p.m.
Reporting & Production

Forget national politics for a sec. A new site brings a local lens to criminal justice and voting rights.

“Issues that seem really intractable at the national level often aren’t at the local level. That’s why we think there’s a lot of opportunity for coverage there.”

Bolts, a new digital magazine dedicated to local policy, is unapologetically down-ballot.

Launched earlier this month, Bolts is bucking the trend toward nationalization of political news to focus on local elections and policy. Instead of focusing on the top of the ticket — i.e., presidential candidates and hotly-contested congressional races — the site will focus on criminal justice and voting rights as they play out in states, counties, cities, and towns across the United States.

The newsroom, for now, consists of founder and editor-in-chief Daniel Nichanian, formerly of The Appeal, and managing editor Michael Barajas, who has written about mass incarceration. (They are currently hiring for a story editor and staff writer.) Bolts has initial funding for its envisioned full-time team of four, plus “a healthy freelance budget.” The nonprofit newsroom has received funds from Justice Catalyst, The Just Trust, and others and plans to continue to seek foundation and individual donations to back its work.

It’s a broad mandate for a big country and Bolts is partnering with other news organizations and freelancers to find and report out local stories. Bolts launched with a story on New York’s chronically understaffed parole board produced with New York Focus and has followed with other local collaborations, including a piece on stalled efforts to allow voting from prison with the Portland Mercury last week.

“Our bet — or our hope — is that there’s a far larger audience than the media often assumes that wants to know and learn from the battles around local power, whether it’s from an interest in the issues of criminal justice and voting rights or because of an interest in political change and the movements that have really centered on these issues in recent years,” Nichanian said. “There’s a lot of institutional creativity going on in local movements. There are overlooked offices and types of power that have not really been used for progressive change or racial justice before that activists want to bring into play.”

Local protections are no replacement for federal protections and can’t match the influence of U.S. Supreme Court decisions — plus, covering federal politics is “tempting” given the attention and clicks it can garner, Nichanian conceded.

“It’s always important to keep in mind the national reasons we might be covering something locally, but that’s different than federal politics, which can become this black hole of attention and resources if you start going there,” Nichanian said.

Many Americans are newly awake to the importance of voting rights and local election administration, in particular, following Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the presidential election in 2020. There are more reporters on the “democracy beat” and more news organizations putting an emphasis on covering the ins and outs of voting. At the state and local level, officials and advocates are taking steps to strengthen democratic processes even as federal legislation has stalled and some states have restricted access to the ballot.

“I think I would have a hard time convincing Daniel we should do a story on, say, attempts to pass the federal voting rights bill,” Barajas said. “One, I think it’s covered very well elsewhere and, two, my sources [in Texas] are focused on local things. They’re focused on, ‘Okay, what do we do in the face of this failure to move anything?’ I think there’s a lot of discussion about Congress’s failure to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, but I see very little coverage and discussion about what local election administrators are doing about that.”

“Issues that seem really intractable at the national level often aren’t at the local level,” Barajas added. “That’s why we think there’s a lot of opportunity for coverage there — because there’s so much movement happening. In a lot of communities, there’s just not always the infrastructure to cover it.”

Bolts is also putting resources toward developing cheat sheets and “What’s on the Ballot?” features. One of the first pieces published was a database of who runs elections in each state and how those people are selected or elected. Nichanian said the feature was designed for the public, yes, but also for advocates and fellow journalists hoping to make sense of the patchwork of election administration in the U.S.

On Tuesday, Texas will hold hundreds of primary elections across the state, and Bolts created a cheat sheet of 40 contests to watch. True to its focus on criminal justice, it’s also published an exhaustive list of who’s running for district attorney and sheriff — local positions that make critical decisions about sentencing and policing — in the state this year. (More than three-quarters of the district attorney races are uncontested, meaning voters will have a single choice on their ballot.)

The team at Bolts hopes that their focus on the nitty gritty — the nuts and bolts, if you will, of local politics and power — will pave the way for more work in more places than they could ever hope to cover by themselves.

“It’s always surprising the degree to which basic information that would allow further work, including further coverage and journalism around these institutions of government, is missing,” Nichanian said. “It’s research that often gets left behind the scenes or treated as a proprietary resource, but it’s public information. This is allowing more coverage, more high-quality journalism, by providing a sort of information infrastructure.”

Photo of bolts by Alexander Baxevanis used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 28, 2022, 2:34 p.m.
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