NORTH CAROLINA — For many normal people—that is, people who take their ballot seriously but don’t obsess over every twist and turn in a grueling months-long political campaign—the printed voter guides provided by newspapers have long been a civic good, collecting in one place information to help voters make decisions in races from the White House down to the local soil and water board.
Both the media world and the mechanics of elections have changed dramatically in recent years, as news consumption moves to online and mobile platforms, newsrooms get by with less, and Election Day becomes Election Month in many places. And so traditional news organizations are refining their voter guides—forming partnerships, trying new tools, and often publishing online first in advance of printed versions.
Here in North Carolina, some things have been lost along the way. Some of the new online guides appear to be a patchwork of tools from different vendors, and the depth and utility of voter guides varies widely depending on the race and the news outlet.
But there are also some bright spots, with smart presentations by news organizations in Raleigh and Wilmington. Those outlets have not only asked candidates in-depth questions about issues, they have presented the information so that readers can find their choices, compare candidates, and reach decisions quickly and easily.
The Wilmington Star-News, a former New York Times Regional Group newspaper that is now owned by the Halifax Media Group, published a voter guide in mid-October that allows voters to search for candidates and see grids of their answers to a series of issue questions. The news organization used technology from e-thePeople, which is operated by the Democracy Project, a nonprofit organization started in 1999.
The newspaper’s metro editor, Sherry Jones, wrote in an email exchange that the issue grids—which display well even on mobile phones—are a reader favorite.
“Our readers have told us time and again that they really like the Q&A format we use and we are getting great response to the e-thePeople online guide,” Jones wrote. “We’ve used the same format in print for a number of years, and it never fails that readers (and candidates) start calling months before the election to find out when we’re going to publish the grids.”
The Star-News put the voter guide online first and planned to prepare a printed voter guide later, Jones said. Early voting began on Oct. 18 in North Carolina, and about 2 million votes so far have about cast.
Jones was responsible for the process of getting responses from candidates for questions developed by the Star-News, which are often fairly pointed and specific. Here’s a sampling of queries put to candidates for the board of county commissioners:
“What’s the maximum percentage the county should pay toward beach renourishment projects? Explain.”As readers digest the information, the Star-News also offers the ability to fill out a sample ballot online, with a clear, visible notice about privacy—a useful addition when many people are wary of sharing their location, or their private voting plans.
“Name a county policy you would like to see adopted or repealed if you’re elected.”
“Give the current board a grade-A to F. Explain.”
WRAL, a locally owned Raleigh TV station with a strong web presence, is using e-thePeople as well. In side-by-side grids, it presents candidate answers to multiple questions. In one example, the U.S. House District 1 race,
WRAL asked the candidates eight questions, ranging from “In 200 words or less, what are your top priorities in running for office?” to “Should U.S. immigration policy allow for the so-called DREAM Act or other measures that would allow immigrants brought here illegally as children to earn citizenship? What steps in immigration reform should be taken in the next two years?”
If a candidate doesn’t respond, a blank space fills the spot where his or her answer would have run—a nice visual touch.
One of the large McClatchy newspapers in the state, the Charlotte Observer, also offers a sample online ballot, powered by Democracy Live. The ballot is packaged online with a searchable database of candidates and their personal statements, provided by the N.C. Center for Voter Education. The ballot is printable and well designed, and links take readers to more information, such as candidates’ Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds.
But specific questions about issues—posed by reporters, with answers from the candidates—aren’t integrated into the database or the sample ballot.