In the midst of a national reckoning over voting by mail, the complicated, localized picture of how people actually vote needs more attention than ever. Some voters, especially first-time voters, may lack the knowledge to comfortably vote by mail or vote at all. Voters from some communities may prefer to vote in person. Others will face an onslaught of false or misleading information as voting gets underway. Almost 50% of voters surveyed by Pew Research expect to have some difficulties casting a ballot this year, a significant rise from 2018’s election cycle.

From now to Election Day, the public needs clear, consistent and accurate information about the logistics of voting during a pandemic to preempt the possibility of confusion and misinformation. That information should be posted in places where it can be easily found, and it should be repeated often. This is a journalistic responsibility.

Based on insight from experts and journalists in API’s Trusted Elections Network, here are some questions to guide that coverage: 

  • What parts of your community might be overlooked or neglected in your election reporting?
  • What questions about voting this year will those communities have?
  • How are you reaching those audiences about candidates and how to vote? 
  • What past assumptions have guided your election reporting that should be dropped or reconsidered this year? 
  • What subjects or concerns around the election might you be devoting too much coverage too? Which ones too little? 

Then, steal some of these ideas from your colleagues to kickstart your coverage:

  • Remind the public frequently by using automated tweets or other social media posts on a daily basis.
  • Centralize voting information in a prominent area of your website, a social media post, or into newsletters.
  • Ask people about their information needs using digital tools or text messaging services.
  • Create materials that can be shared outside of your website on social media.
  • Help the public with their questions or common mistakes that recur during the voting process, like signature issues or late ballots.

For more detailed information, keep reading.


Voting by mail is having a moment in the sun. It’s the subject of contentious presidential tweets, reporting in response to those tweets and controversial decisions affecting the U.S. Postal Service. More Americans may vote by mail than ever, but it’s not the only way to vote.

Based on what we’ve heard from experts and reporters in the Trusted Elections Network, journalists need to keep that in mind, especially if the voting-by-mail situation becomes more volatile as Election Day approaches. The public needs to be informed about how to proceed in uncharted territory.

Consider historic trends to how different segments of the population vote. Those trends are not just a matter of preference. They’re informed by inequities in our system of voting. With uncertainty and misinformation being constant threats to the public, old habits of voting are still at play. Journalists should convey the different ways to vote to their communities. 

If you’re already convinced, feel free to move onto the final section about how reporters can respond. If not, let’s talk about meeting this need.

The big picture: Don’t rest on your laurels

The New York Times recently summarized what it’s been like to vote in 2020 so far. There have been prominent cases of long linesmissing or late absentee ballots, sudden procedural changes and shortages of poll workers or voting machines that couldn’t stand up to the demand.

The systems responsible for these problematic experiences were in place before the pandemic ever arrived, which suggests some limitations of accountability reporting on fixing the problem. In Georgia, where problems in its June primary sparked widespread criticism and finger-pointing, polling place lines were the longest in the country in 2018

According to a Bipartisan Policy Center report about the 2018 voting experience, “Voters in Georgia (18 minutes) waited 23 times longer than voters in Vermont (46 seconds).” Furthermore, on a national scale, “African American (11.5 minutes) and Hispanic (11.7 minutes) voters waited longer, on average, than white voters (8.8 minutes).”

The pandemic didn’t create unequal voting conditions, but in many cases, it has exacerbated them.

In spite of story (South Carolina in 2018), after story (Phoenix in 2016), after story (Vox on long lines in 1966 versus 2016) – not to mention tweets and the 2016 version of the same Bipartisan Policy Center report – the system-level results have been mixed. It’s obviously not a problem of effort from journalists, but the attention paid to problems inherent in elections could be complemented with more information to give voters the agency to exercise the right to vote.

Covering only the problems in electoral systems is similar to covering crime without the additional context of what causes crime to happen, what can be done about it or how infrequently it happens. Even when stories explain the issue with additional depth, audiences don’t always click past headlines, and journalists might not write for audience needs if they have ungracious views of an audience’s ability to engage with and act on the material.

For example, a story about the closure of polling places can stand on its own, but Jonathan Lai of the Philadelphia Inquirer went through the additional steps of describing why polling places were closing, embedding a tool allowing readers to find their polling places in Philadelphia and highlighting that service in the headline for his version of a story about polling place closures.

Headline from Philadelphia Inquirer story by Jonathan Lai talking about the closure of polling places

Headline from Philadelphia Inquirer story by Jonathan Lai that marries an accountability angle with an audience-centered solution

Without this additional context – i.e., removing “Find yours here” and the polling place tool from the story – the focus remains on the electoral system’s ineffectiveness or vulnerabilities. Lai’s way of presenting this story centers the public’s ability to remedy the situation instead.

If journalists fail to provide adequate context in their coverage of voting challenges, the Brookings Institution warns, the reporting can have the effect of further undermining voter confidence, which is just as effective and desirable an outcome for hostile foreign actors as voter suppression.

Inversely, researchers at the University of Texas-Austin found news audiences have a more positive response “to coverage mentioning threats surrounding election mechanics paired with potential solutions” than to coverage that doesn’t touch on solutions.

We will now delve deeper into how this has culminated in a particularly problematic situation in 2020. If you want to skip ahead, some holistic approaches to offering voting information and preventing voting problems are summarized at the end of this piece.

The perfect storm: 2020 kicks us while we’re down

None of these issues are new. Many of them existed in 2016 and in election years before. But we’ve hit the motherlode of misfortune in 2020.

Every problem with electoral systems or elections reporting is compounded by the pandemic, protests and our democracy seemingly having a bit of a midlife crisis.

Naturally, the response to that has been to focus on the potential solutions. Collectively, there’s been a lot more talk about voting by mail, both in media coverage and in Google searches, a trend that usually peaks every election year if Google Trends is any indication of interest.

Google Trends graph indicating trends in "voting by mail" searches since 2004

Google Trends graph indicating cycle of interest in “voting by mail” through Google searches since 2004

MuckRack trends graph indicating increased reporting on voting by mail

MuckRack Trends, a service that measures the amount of coverage a search term is getting from reporters, illustrates the cyclical nature of reporting on voting by mail

The problem with these peaks is the potential for us to miss important context as certain subjects overshadow others. Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post, replayed how this myopia affected journalists in 2016 – much to their collective surprise.

“[Journalists] did things the same old way, when something quite different was demanded,” Sullivan said.

As far as the “same old way” goes, Journalist’s Resource summarizes some of the research about the problems with “horse race” reporting, which manages simultaneously to seed distrust in politicians, distrust in news outlets and is detrimental to female political candidates.

Sullivan’s primary recommendation this year is to focus on voting rights and election integrity. But doing so requires understanding the nuances of voting behavior. Voters are not a monolith, which might mean working against some assumptions about the information that journalists need to provide them.

Voting by mail: The great equalizer?

Voting by mail is an example of how this mandate to focus on voting rights must be approached with localized nuance and understanding. Although voting by mail may have widespread support, there are some caveats to that support that should inform how to report on it.

Black voters

Black voters did not use voting by mail as much as white voters in 2018. That is a matter of preference shaped by historical systemic barriers. As Sullivan says, “something quite different” is required to facilitate their vote.

The Center for American Progress and the NAACP reported that 11% of Black voters voted by mail in the 2018 midterm elections, the lowest rate of voting by mail of any racial or ethnic group according to U.S. Census Data, compared to 24% of whites and 27% of Latinos. That was after a 2016 election where all racial groups voted by mail at similar rates, an indication of the year-over-year variability that indicates the need for more preparation on the part of reporters. In 2018, Black voters also had the highest rates of voting in-person on and before Election Day. Black people also have the highest move rates according to the Census and account for about 39% of the homeless population by one 2016 point-in-time count orchestrated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (white people accounted for about 48% of the homeless people counted). These factors can prevent Black voters from exercising their right to vote by mail.

Voting in person also has significant historical precedence for Black voters, “a right earned after decades of strenuous and bloody fights” CNN wrote. This history of suppression has engendered feelings of distrust in government institutions and procedures. In 2020, this translates to fewer mail ballots being requested by Black and Latino voters in places like Georgia or Philadelphia.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “[Philadelphia] neighborhoods with low-income residents and communities of color are requesting absentee ballots at rates that far lag other parts of the city.” This same set of Philadelphia voters were more likely to live in coronavirus hotspots.

Ballot rejections

Even when these communities successfully request, receive and use a mail ballot, they run into systemic hurdles beyond their control. Charles Stewart, Trusted Elections Network member and founding director of the MIT Election Lab, told NPR that Black, Latino and young voters are more likely to have their mail ballots rejected in a mid-July analysis of primary election voting.

Depending on the jurisdiction, this disparity can be extreme. In Florida, “uncounted mail ballots are more prevalent among Democrats, younger and first-time voters, and among Black and Hispanic voters,” according to a memo on the Florida elections by the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project. The project has written profiles for a variety of other states if you need a place to start for background.

Young voters

As Florida indicates, significant hurdles exist for young voters (specifically 18- to 34-year-olds), who voted by mail less frequently than those 65 and up in 2016. According to recent polling data from NextGen America, a Democratic group focused on engaging young voters and highlighted in this NPR piece, “more than half of voters under the age of 35 say they don’t have the resources or knowledge they need to vote by mail in November.” The difficulties are compounded if you’re both young and a person of color.

Young voters might have a signature that changes over time – one example of a number of factors that could invalidate a mail ballot in jurisdictions that require a signature match. According to a story co-published by Wisconsin Watch and APM Reports, a missing signature (from a voter or witness) or a missing witness address was the top reason for a ballot rejection in Wisconsin. A total of 12 states require at least one witness signature to submit an absentee ballot.

Latino voters and non-English speakers

Depending on the jurisdiction, the need for additional context, support and information about voting will differ based on those types of requirements. In Wisconsin, for example, a sizable Puerto Rican population needs additional resources devoted to them to vote, according to this 2017 opinion piece from The Cap Times. In 2016, out of six counties with more than 2,000 Puerto Ricans, only Milwaukee County provided Spanish-speaking voters bilingual ballots and poll workers.

Whether it’s mistranslated materials in the few jurisdictions that mandate translations or not enough bilingual poll workers to assist at the polls, the lack of translation services can end up disenfranchising voters that don’t get additional support.

Certain election administration policies also have a disproportionate impact, as noted in this analysis of racism against Latino voters from the Washington Post. Strict voter ID laws and voter roll maintenance are points of controversy that might require special consideration in voting guides or stories in your region.

Voters with disabilities

During the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, USA Today reviewed what voting might look like for people with disabilities this year. Notably, “People with disabilities make up the country’s largest minority group, with 61 million Americans living with a disability.” Polling places don’t always follow the guidelines to make them accessible. And although mail ballots may seem like a positive development on that front, they neglect the needs of blind and low-vision voters.

Furthermore, the consolidation of polling places, like one polling place in Jefferson County, Kentucky, or five polling places in Milwaukee, means that voters with disabilities might have to travel farther to vote in person.

Native American voters

American Indians face their own set of systemic barriers. In a report by the Native American Rights Fund, and summarized by network member The Fulcrum, American Indian voters can be stymied due to their relative isolation from tribal facilities and county offices, housing instability in both rural and urban areas, a lack of broadband internet access, reduced access to mail services, and prohibitive access to state IDs. These are just a few of the barriers in place that limit access to both the polls and mail ballots – with about 1 million Native Americans left unregistered as a result.

All of this is to say that the specific situation regarding absentee balloting and voting by mail in your coverage area might differ and requires special attention.  An April 2020 Brennan Center analysis of absentee voting in 2016 offers a glimpse into how different states can be in this regard.

Chart from Brennan Center indicating variability in absentee voting rates in different states and with different demographics splits of race and age

Chart from Brennan Center indicating variability in absentee voting rates in different states and with different demographics splits of race and age

Some parts of your community will feel like they will have a difficult time voting despite being highly engaged this election. Voters will have questions about systemic barriers that predated the pandemic but are worse now as a result. National narratives about voting and the election are capturing the attention of local communities without the context of how those processes will play out locally. These are some of the gaps that reporters will have to fill and that disinformation agents will try to exploit. The work needs to start now.

With all this in mind, ask yourself again:

  • What parts of your community might be overlooked or neglected in your election reporting?
  • What questions about voting this year will those communities have?
  • How are you reaching those audiences about candidates and how to vote? 
  • What past assumptions have guided your election reporting that should be dropped or reconsidered this year? 
  • What subjects or concerns around the election might you be devoting too much coverage too? Which ones too little?
  • What is getting national attention that requires additional context at the local level?

Solutions: Remind the public, centralize information, focus on information needs, create shareable materials, help out with the hard parts

We looked to our own network members and beyond for some creative ways to disseminate information on voting. Here are some examples:

  • Remind the public frequently: Voters are overloaded with information that is often conflicting. Providing accurate, relevant information frequently helps. Jonathan Lai of the Philadelphia Inquirer has set up an automated tweet every morning to relay deadlines for registering to vote and request absentee ballots – with information on how to do so. It’s a relatively simple but powerful gesture that can be easily replicated with a tool like Buffer or SocialOomph.
  • Centralize information: Lai’s Twitter updates were inspired by this Talking Points Memo piece that suggests the creation of a prominent “democracy box” to broadcast important information to voters in highly visible ways every day. The reliability of knowing where to look for this information is key. Our colleagues at Trusting News have talked about the need for integrating transparency into your work through a variety of channels. Those same channels – a box on your website, a social media post, integrated into newsletters – are all potential avenues for offering voting information.
  • Ask your community about their information needs: KPCC’s Human Voter Guide uses a question-and-answer methodology to inform their coverage based on the questions that matter to the community. Using Hearken’s digital form and Groundsource’s texting tool, the KPCC team is able to gather and prioritize questions from the public and centralize answers in an FAQ. Inspired by KPCC’s work, Jonathan Lai and the Lenfest Local Lab in Philadelphia did something similar in 2018, asking Philadelphians to sign up for text messages that relayed important information on midterm elections. According to a Lenfest Local Lab piece republished in Nieman, 464 people signed up, 41% responded to texts and 77% of survey respondents “said they felt more informed about how to vote in the election having received the texts.”
  • Create shareable materials: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently created some Instagram posts answering common questions about their primary election that could easily be shared in the stories of their followers. In 2018, The Ithaca Times published a voter registration form on the front page of their printed edition, which the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel credited as their inspiration for offering a voter registration form on their website (with an accompanying Facebook video that is under a minute long). These unconventional resources can easily be shared to extend their reach.
  • Help the public based on what you’ve learned: Whether the potential pitfalls of the voting process are informed by gathering information from the community or by data indicating problems in the process (e.g., “About 6,700 Nevada primary ballots rejected over signatures”), help clarify the process in your reporting. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a story explaining how to avoid common mistakes with absentee ballots. Another piece highlighted five changes to look for in November as a result of the chaotic April primary in Wisconsin. It’s important to note that this second story could have been framed in a way that centered the procedural changes without key takeaways for voters, but the bold subheads let audience members quickly glance at the article to get what they need.
  • Translate the resources you have (through partnerships), but beware of a one-size-fits-all approach: People who don’t speak English have a difficult time voting., a noteworthy voting guide that came out of a collaborative of newsrooms covering Chicago’s 2019 municipal elections, brought in their local Univision station to translate their guide into Spanish. But as noted in Lenfest’s Solution Set, the guide got little engagement in the Spanish-speaking community. Although their efforts are commendable, what works for one audience may not work for every audience.

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