They’re not conventional political journalists, but they might have the most important beat of 2020.

This election year was going to be different even before the pandemic.

Legislatures in several states had changed election laws in 2018 and 2019 in ways that made voting for many people more complicated. But those passed under the radar when compared with the complications around election reforms brought on by the pandemic this year. Add the prevalent fears about misinformation compounded by the actions of the president and his allies, and, suddenly, just knowing how to vote has become a central issue of the campaign 2020.

These are some of the many issues creating uncertainty ahead of Election Day, a year when simply exercising the right to vote has become complicated and, for some, frightening.

As a result, a new focus on voting access and election administration has overshadowed conventional campaign reporting. In May, Nieman Reports noted this seismic shift and highlighted how some reporters were responding during the primaries.

This voting and elections beat — sometimes labeled democracy or voting rights — existed before 2020, however. The American Press Institute spoke to three reporters — Jonathan Lai from the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pam Fessler from NPR and Grace Panetta from Business Insider — who have applied a laser-like focus on election administration this year and in years past.

Their experiences, methods and philosophy indicate the potential for expanding a beat that connects readers to a political world that might feel locked away from them. These reporters might hold the key: Helping people vote. 

It’s a model of election coverage that is likely to gain traction as news organizations seek to help voters understand this fundamental right and ways that it’s under threat — even after 2020 is over.

They don’t view it like traditional political reporting

None of these journalists approaches the beat like political reporters. Their focus isn’t on politics or politicians. It’s on citizens, and how they will participate in democracy. It might be tempting for newsroom leaders to have political reporters do this work, but this beat is done from a different perspective. It’s a separate form, but a complement to the work political reporters already do.

Lai, for example, comes to his beat with a healthy skepticism of conventional political maneuvering. His interest is in something more foundational — the mechanics of “the fundamental right to vote” — and he will not allow voting rights to be superseded by the political implications of his work, like how voting rights affect the Trump or Biden campaigns.

“I don’t care who somebody votes for. I care whether they have the ability to vote” Lai said.

The goal is to explain the process of elections, often with an audience-centric framing that illuminates how systemic election issues affect the reader and what they can do about it. It can be subtle, like in this story, “Elections officials will count Pennsylvania mail ballots around the clock until they’re done,” in which Lai offers up the most important takeaway right in the headline — written like an answer to an FAQ — with the understanding that readers don’t always click through social links to read the whole story.

Election reporting can also be a more direct public service journalism piece like the example from Panetta below in which she clears up misinformation from the president about mail-in ballots, offers insight into how the mail-in ballot process differs across the country and ends the piece with action items and explanatory links for the reader that describe how to vote this November.

A screenshot of an example of an election reporting story from Grace Panetta of Business Insider. The headline reads, "How to track your mail-in ballot at every step and make sure it's counted in November," and include a photo of a ballot box with Panetta's byline.

An example of an election reporting story from Grace Panetta of Business Insider. The headline immediately relays the value of the story to the reader.

Lai theorizes that voting and election reporting has a multiplier effect that amplifies and connects to the more traditional political reporting of his colleagues on the Inquirer’s Politics & Governing team. If traditional political reporting is an expressway, the work of these election reporters serves as an on-ramp.

“If I can convince people to be interested in our elections, they also then need information on candidates and campaigns in order to exercise that right,” Lai said.

Fessler also thinks of this voting coverage as a necessity. Especially this year, she said, it’s crucial to have an election reporter to rebut misinformed accusations of election fraud or a rigged election system.

This beat takes different expertise than knowing politics

Election and voting reporters must understand election law in their states along with county- and precinct-level rules. They must know the people in charge of elections, who they’re accountable to and how they operate.

According to Fessler, the beat has evolved since the 2000 election that ended with a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision declaring George W. Bush the winner over Al Gore, yet many of the underlying themes, like voter suppression or election security, have always been there.

“What’s new is the overlay of any kind of exterior influence, like misinformation and technology in terms of potential hacking, and then this year we have the pandemic,” she said. With the advent of social media, increased misinformation and COVID-19, voters have more things to keep track of than ever.

Increased political partisanship complicates matters, too. In response, election reporters double down by depoliticizing their coverage and centering their mission to help the public vote in the context of larger political decisions.

“That’s one of the things that I think we’re allowed to take a stance on is that people should be allowed to vote. And their votes should be secure,” Lai said. 

“Sometimes, things are in conflict, like you want the right to vote to be as expansive as possible while also being as secure as possible. That is the tension …. But it is not a political statement to say that people should be allowed to vote and to say that those votes should also be secure.” 

It takes solid research and resourcefulness to stay informed amid the partisan squabbling. Lai is also a data reporter and works through election data to write some stories — like this one that uses voter registration data from the Pennsylvania Department of State and visualizations he created to measure coronavirus’ impact on voter registration relative to 2016. He also reads election and voting research on Google Scholar and is afforded the space and time to explore his beat at an enterprise level, which might mean conferring with political scientists to iron out the vagaries of voting in Pennsylvania. These tools allow him to get at nuance about elections that goes beyond political infighting.

Lai’s process also offers some tricks of the trade that can help. Collaboration lessens the burden for election reporters, whether it be with other political reporters internally or with an external network like API’s Trusted Elections Network or ProPublica’s Electionland. In Lai’s case, he sometimes completes half a story and works with the rest of his team to have them cover the political implications.

Election reporters recognize that many election officials also have a resounding devotion to running successful, accessible elections, which makes them good sources and aligns incentives for disseminating reliable information to the public.

“There are 10,000 election offices in this country. Some are obviously big and sophisticated, and some are a two-person operation that have no money. But I’ve been impressed at how incredibly knowledgeable they are, and I’d say 99% are really committed to just the goal of having an election that people can feel good about,” Fessler said.

A wealth of election data is available to parse through for stories – the federal biennial Election Administration and Voting Survey is one example – plus a decentralized electoral system allows for plenty of localized context to supplement national narratives about elections.

In other words, there’s plenty of room to maneuver within the beat. Some newsrooms won’t have the resources to dedicate a full-time reporter to the topic, but when they do, it pays off. According to Lai, engagement with his stories is high.

“You don’t see the level of emotion at the death of John Lewis for no reason. People care so deeply about the right to vote and the foundations of American democracy. People care so much, that as long as you can make this accessible to people, they will read it, they will share it,” Lai said.

This beat allows journalists to have conviction about civic participation and democracy

Acknowledging the difficulty of this beat is one way of restating why it’s vital and gratifying. If covering elections takes a high level of dedication from reporters to understand electoral systems, it makes sense that the public would have some trouble. That was Panetta’s reason for wanting to cover this beat in 2020.

As a self-described “election nerd,” she first took the initiative to cover issues with Ohio’s primary election. The disorder during primary season, with its sudden changes to election procedures in the midst of a pandemic, was the impetus to continue her reporting after conferring with her senior data editor.

“I realized that this is just a topic I’m passionate about,” Panetta said.

In her experience, teams at Business Insider have freedom on what they write about as long as they’re hitting their benchmarks and fulfilling their responsibilities.

Panetta knows more trouble is likely to be on the horizon. She said she expects the next couple of months to be chaotic and busy as election infrastructure is put to an unprecedented test and litigation continues to influence rules and procedures.

“It’s going to be a massive stress test of our democracy and how our democratic institutions hold up,” Panetta said.

A recent change in the rules for “curing” absentee ballots in North Carolina, for example, requires an understanding of who is affected and how best to convey these updates. Hence, there is a newfound, present-day emphasis on the information needs of voters coming from journalism support organizations and observers.

Voters and news consumers also need help resolving what is normal in the world of elections. The emphasis on election administration may make it seem like the whole elections system is rife with fraud and problems, especially in a confusing and divisive year like this one. But, as Fessler noted, that makes it “more important than ever for reporters covering voting to try to make very clear when incidents are the result of pretty standard logistical or administrative election problems.”

The vast majority of things that go wrong in elections are just commonplace mistakes that have happened before. But a negative perception of elections has serious implications for voter confidence, according to Lai. Some barriers, like facing a long line at the polling place, can negatively impact future voting behavior.

Fessler stressed the importance of “talking to voters about their views of the process,” which makes sense when considering the possible aftermath of an adverse experience with voting.

“Any amount of friction in the voting process leads to people dropping out of the process. And voting is a habit. It is very much a habit. All the research shows this: If you have good experiences, you’ll continue to vote. If you have bad experiences, you will stop,” Lai said.

In the end, these reporters are trying to foster those good experiences.

The beat doesn’t start and end in an election year

Panetta may be right about the dire straits leading up to the 2020 election, but this beat does not end on Election Day or in 2020. That might be the most important lesson coming from these reporters.

Fessler recounted how the interest in election administration spiked dramatically in 2000, then again in 2016. The public is once more seeing the significance of election and voting issues in 2020, which only increases the need to focus on these matters. Not only have expectations shifted around Election Day, which some are rightfully arguing could be Election Week or Election Month, but, as Lai pointed out, redistricting happens next year. That process, which began with this year’s census, will shape legislative maps across all levels of government for the next decade.

“There’s another moment every couple of months. Like there’s always another election coming. And so, there’s always a lot to do,” Lai said.

According to Lai, elections operate on “weird” timelines, “where you’re always too far out from an election, until all of a sudden you’re too close to an election.”

Not only is that true for election administrators, but it’s also true for the reporters who cover their work. It’s true especially in 2020. Major stories like coronavirus and protests over racial injustice held the media limelight long enough to serve as diversions from preparations for the general election in November. As newsrooms decide where to marshal dwindling resources, election coverage may have fallen through the cracks, which leaves a lot of open questions as to how elections will run this year — questions that election and voting reporters like Panetta, Fessler and Lai, are answering right now.

Upending this pattern of election coverage coming in waves should be a prerogative. As Lai said, another election is always on the horizon and redistricting will happen in 2021, which means this particular brand of civic-minded public service journalism will continue to be crucial for getting audiences more involved in democracy.

If there’s anything this year has hopefully taught journalism, it’s that these things matter.

You might not have the resources or time to be a full-fledged election or voting reporter or to employ a full-time person to do this work on your team. But you can still do some simple things to incorporate their skill set and philosophy into your political coverage.

  1. Consider the case for devoting more time to elections and voting: Lai pointed out the high engagement with his stories. Panetta has been able to remain on the beat, as she continues to hit her required benchmarks. Fessler has been on this beat the longest. Clearly, there’s a lot of interest and room to develop this coverage, especially at the local level where elections differ in their administration and national politics and elections draw outsized attention. A considerable civic education gap in the United States that has been trending in the wrong direction could be met with reporting that fulfills that need.
  2. Develop election officials as sources: As Fessler said, election officials are almost always devoted public service officials doing their best to run successful elections. They can make great sources and harbor information that is critical to the public.
  3. Look at other sources of information on elections: Elections create a lot of data at all levels of government. From the initial process of registration, to the casting of ballots and ending with the counting and verification of election results, there are a lot of ways to examine this process via public information. Reporting on individual voters can then humanize the narratives informed by data. According to Lai, political scientists and researchers also make great sources and can break through partisanship with their research and understanding of what we do and don’t know. They can help clear up misconceptions and help you understand limitations — like the unresolved amount of undecided voters — that will inform your reporting.
  4. Seek out examples to follow: Panetta’s rundown of state voter registration deadlines has been shared almost 800 times on Facebook according to BuzzSumo. Lai’s extensive voting FAQ has around 1,300 Facebook shares and provides accessible information about the voting process for audiences. Fessler recently appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition to answer listener questions solicited through social media — the same questions that your local audience is probably asking themselves. Not everyone needs to have an engagement strategy in order to inform their reporting on elections and voting. The overlap in themes and questions between these three examples of reporting is enough to form the basis of your own story or resource.

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