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We’ve Reported on Elections for Years. Here’s How Reporters Can Hold Officials Accountable.

Here are tips and ideas about what local reporters should find out about their local election systems before Nov. 3 to make sure people who should be able to vote can cast a ballot.

Californians vote using new touch-screen machines on Super Tuesday, March 3, in Los Angeles. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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This story is co-published with the IRE Journal.

As part of our Electionland project, we work with journalists around the country to provide reporting resources about voting rights, election security and election-related misinformation. We’ve put together a series of tips and ideas about how local reporters can tackle election reporting well ahead of the general election.

What Can Reporters Look for Before and During Election Day?

Elections in the U.S. are massive, decentralized, sometimes-idiosyncratic endeavors run independently by 10,000 county and municipal voting jurisdictions across the country. So the first thing you as a local reporter can do is to familiarize yourself with how elections are run in your state, county or town — and by whom.

So before covering an election, here are several things you could find out:

  • Who are your local and state election officials?

  • What types of voting technology will be used? That includes the type of machines used to vote or scan ballots, software, electronic poll books and technology used to monitor lines on Election Day. It’s important to understand exactly what type of technology will be used, any past problems with that technology in other jurisdictions and what solutions have been used to address them. Journalists can find out the age of the machines and whether they produce backup paper ballots.

  • What changes have been put in place since the last election, such as changes in voting laws or ID requirements? Has your state changed polling place locations, created new precincts or started using new voting machines? Confused poll workers and voters can cause problems on Election Day.

  • What kind of training did poll workers receive, especially if the county or state is using new technology?

Reporters can go even further by getting firsthand knowledge of voting systems:

  • Request to see/try voting machines. Ask to cast a sample ballot on the machine.

  • Ask for a tour of the places where voting machines are stored. Journalists can inspect the physical security of these locations and consult security experts to determine how secure those facilities are.

  • Confirm the chain of custody of the machines. Are they stored securely in between elections? Most election officials say categorically that voting machines are not connected to the internet. Ask if that’s true in your jurisdiction’s case.

  • Find out how poll workers are trained and attend a training session. Poorly trained — or overwhelmed — staff can be a major factor in preventing voters from successfully casting a ballot. If you attend a training, ask questions about the quality of the training that poll workers receive and about recent changes that might cause mistakes, like the use of new technology.

There are also a few things that can provide fertile ground for reporting:

  • Reporters can scrutinize election information distributed by local election officials, whether they’re emails, mailings or posters. Is all of the information correct? When laws change or court decisions come down shortly before an election, these materials may contain incorrect information, which occurred in Texas in 2016 and in Missouri in 2018.

  • Journalists could also determine if they live in an area where the Department of Justice requires translations of voting materials into other languages. (Consult the list here.) Some of these translations are poor, or use Google Translate, and reporters can find native speakers to check them. In Bexar County, home of San Antonio, the election office mistranslated “runoff election” to “election drainage” in its Spanish materials in 2018. A bad translation could cause confusion or spread misinformation.

  • Federal law requires jurisdictions to securely store paper ballots from federal elections for 22 months. Journalists can request to visit those storage locations and find out if there’s a process for securing paper ballots for the required 22 months.

What Should Journalists Ask Local Election Officials?

  • What changes to voting laws, procedures or regulations have taken place since the last election? If so, what were the changes? How have they been communicated to the public and to staff?

  • Were there changes to polling places or precincts? If so, what? How have potential voters been alerted about the changes?

  • Can I tour the facilities where voting machines are stored?

  • Do you have enough poll workers?

  • Do you have enough machines? Some states mandate a ratio of polling booths to voters in each precinct — in Georgia it’s one booth per 250 voters. Find out the rules in your area and ask the official if they’ll be in compliance.

  • How are poll workers trained?

  • Are all your precincts compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act? How are poll workers trained to assist people with disabilities? The Americans with Disabilities Act spells out specific requirements for polling places and accessible voting systems. If poll workers aren’t trained properly, disabled voters may not end up being able to vote privately, as required by law.

What Records Could Journalists Request Before the Election?

  • The local budget for voting and the IT department that provides cybersecurity and information security training to the elections office. This will give you insight into how your local elections are funded.

  • The user manual for voting technology. This can help if something goes wrong with the technology, since it may be hard to get in touch with a device’s manufacturer.

  • The purchasing agreement for voting software. This will tell you what authorities paid, what the service contract looks like and who’s responsible for addressing problems.

  • The calendar of the official responsible for acquiring voting equipment to identify meetings they’ve had with vendors. You can also look how much vendors have donated to elected officials and spent on local lobbying efforts around voting.

  • Public employee financial disclosure forms. Sometimes election officials are paid to be on advisory boards for private election technology companies, and they should disclose those ties.

  • Reports of voting-related problems that are called into local election offices or sent by local officials to the state. These reports can give you a sense of problems that have occurred at polling places in the past.

  • Poll worker training materials, like handbooks or training videos.

  • A log of public records requests sent to election authorities. Election technology companies will sometimes file records requests to see what contracts are in place or to find out the budgets of local jurisdictions. Activist groups also file these requests, and those may prove useful for reporting, too.

How Can Journalists Determine What’s Really a Problem on Election Day?

Most elections are run remarkably well by people working under trying circumstances and inadequate budgets. Yet mistrust in the system is high. As a reporter covering voting, you play an especially important role, and you will want to take extra care in what and how you report.

An overhyped story can convince people not to vote or spread inaccurate information about how to vote. For example, part of the confusion with Texas’ 2016 voter ID law stemmed from media coverage of the court decision and subsequent developments.

So when it comes to identifying problems on Election Day, experts say it’s important to make a distinction between isolated incidents and systemic problems. Mistakes happen during every election — polling places open late or equipment breaks or machines get miscalibrated. And plain old incompetence and human error often play a role. Not every malfunctioning voting screen is a foreign hacking attempt.

To understand the scope of a problem, it’s important to talk to local election officials. Some questions you can ask are: Is the problem causing lines that last more than half an hour? Have these problems happened before? Did the problems lead to a large number of people having to cast provisional ballots? Is this the first time that the county used this technology?

If the problem involves technology, you can determine the manufacturer and type of machine and find out if similar issues are occurring in other states that use that technology. And you can talk to national experts who can weigh in on the scope and seriousness of the problem.

What Should I Ask Officials About the Coronavirus?

  • Does the state have an election contingency plan?

  • Are there plans to allow for no-excuse mail-in ballots? If so, how will it work?

  • Does your county have enough scanners to handle an uptick in mail-in ballots?

  • Have your scanners been tested to accommodate the expected increased volume?

  • Does your state’s postal service have capacity to handle an uptick in mail-in ballots?

  • What plans are in place to ensure polling places will be safe to vote, including providing cleaning supplies?

  • If polling places will be changed, how do officials plan to contact voters to communicate those changes?

  • How will authorities ensure there will be enough poll workers?

  • If poll workers do not show up for their shifts, will your county be able to dispatch additional poll workers at the last minute?

What Should I Know About Election Data?

There are several studies on voting data worth exploring:

  • Waiting in Line to Vote: This 2013 white paper provides estimates of wait times from the 2012 presidential election and the estimates of lost votes as a result of the long lines.

  • Reprecincting and Voter Behavior: This study looked at how changes in polling places in Manatee County, Florida, made voters less likely to participate in the 2014 election.

  • An Assessment of Minority Voting Rights Access in the United States: In 2018, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published a report on “the current and recent state of voter access and voting discrimination for communities of color, voters with disabilities, and limited-English proficient citizens.” The report also assesses the DOJ’s enforcement record regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and since the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.

There are a few datasets available online that can be used for research and reporting:

  • Verified Voting: This organization provides downloadable data on the specific types of voting equipment used in every voting jurisdiction by year.

  • The Voting Information Project: An organization that collects polling place data and makes it easy for voters to search for their polling place. You can see the latest data they have in their system in a Google Group, but the data itself is not downloadable. (For developers, they have an API.)

  • MIT Election Lab Data: Here, you can download data sets on election returns by state, county, district and precinct.

Are you a local reporter? Sign up for ProPublica’s Electionland project and help us cover this year’s election.

For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on elections.

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