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.”

“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.”
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.

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.

That information does exist. The Observer offers a full online page of links to all of its political coverage, including endorsements, detailed candidate profiles for high-profile races, and Q&As for some local races. The page is rich with information, but it’s intimidating, overwhelming, and difficult to navigate. One example: a Q&A with county commission candidates is linked from within an article that is itself linked in the voter page, so it’s invisible to readers at first glance.

In Raleigh, the Observer’s sister paper the News & Observer provides biographies and candidate statements with a similar tool that also pulls from the N.C. Center for Voter Education database. (Oddly, like Charlotte, its “select candidate” drop-down menu sorts by first name, a decision that drew a wry comment from at least one reader.)

Elsewhere in the state, other news organizations are offering information specific to their coverage areas: the independent Mountain Xpress in Asheville produced a voter guide with a tongue-in-cheek Halloween cover, focusing on the board of county commissioners and presented in PDF form only online. And the nonprofit Carolina Public Press has gone deep into campaign finance for U.S. House candidates in Districts 10 and 11, in the western part of the state. It has also embedded YouTube videos featuring debates between county candidates on its site.

But perhaps the best tool for voter guides, with the ability to add depth on issues and present the information in an integrated, useful, efficient way, is e-ThePeople, which shines at WRAL and the Star-News.

The best measure, after all, is how useful these guides are to readers. That’s why Jones of the Star-News finds the work gratifying. “Reader response to the online guide,” she wrote, “has been fantastic.”

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Andria Krewson is an independent journalist in Charlotte and a student in the University of North Carolina's master of arts in technology and digital communication. She worked at The Charlotte Observer for many years. Find her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/underoak or http://twitter.com/akrewson.