Lessons from North Carolina’s voting wars

Be there. Be passionate. Ask tough questions. And focus on the facts

CHARLESTON, SC — With all due respect to Texas, North Carolina has become ground zero in the voting wars. An omnibus bill signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on Aug. 12 made the Tar Heel State the first to drastically change its election laws since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on the Voting Rights Act. Since then, ballot battles have become a flashpoint in the larger backlash to the GOP’s aggressive legislative agenda.

For reporters, this is a complicated and fast-moving story. Simply describing everything the law does—it’s much more than voter ID, whatever McCrory might suggest—could take a couple thousand words. (For readers looking for a primer I recommend this recent piece by Reid Wilson of The Washington Post’s new GovBeat blog. Despite the listicle headline, it doesn’t skimp on details.) It’s also a wide-ranging story, stretching from the state capitol to obscure local elections boards to, perhaps soon, Washington.

Coverage on the story has been vast, as it’s drawn attention from far outside the state’s borders. Here’s a look at some lessons drawn from the reporting to date — inside and outside the state — and some suggestions for media moving forward:

The importance of being there

On Aug. 13—a day after McCrory signed the law—the Republican-controlled elections board in coastal Pasquotank County voted to block Montravias King, a college senior at the historically black Elizabeth City State University, from running for city council. Pete Gilbert, the county’s GOP chairman, had contested King’s candidacy, and the board ruled that his campus address didn’t meet local residency requirements.

There was one member of the press present for the vote—Jon Hawley of The Daily Advance in Elizabeth City. And as Hawley would note in his (paywalled) article, the board’s move had implications beyond King’s candidacy. “The residency requirements for a candidate are identical to those for a voter,” Hawley wrote. His article also indicated that Gilbert planned to challenge the votes of students who registered at their campus residence. The Associated Press soon jumped on the story and got Gilbert on the record saying he aimed to take his “show on the road.”

Hawley told me his paper had reported on Gilbert’s gadfly antics before, but this was the first they had made such big waves beyond the local community. “Once they saw it I think they realized it was a big enough story,” he told me. “It’s not like I was the only person on this, certainly, but I like to think I helped get the ball rolling—you know, sent up a flare that got peoples’ attention.”

Hawley’s reporting on that Aug. 13 vote for The Daily Advance helped establish that some county election boards would be quick to test the limits of the new legal landscape—and helped bring national attention to Pasquotank County. On Aug. 22, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC broadcast her show from Elizabeth City, devoting about half the episode to the North Carolina voting wars.

Maddow also pitched her viewers on supporting local papers with subscriptions—a case she continued in an interview Hawley conducted with her after the show. “I would not know what was happening in those board of elections meetings if you had not been there reporting on them,” Maddow said. “The same goes for [other counties] … and I realize it is a considerable devotion of resources for local papers to have their reporters out, sitting through those meetings and spending all that time waiting for something important to happen and being there just in case, even on the days when it doesn’t happen … sometimes things happen in those meetings which the whole country ought to hear about. And that’s true in Elizabeth City. And were it not for you being hired to work that beat and your editor telling you to go there and then that paper existing to print that story, nobody would know.”

Being there is just the start. Ask tough questions, too

Last week, the state board of elections took up an appeal to King’s case and reversed the local board’s decision, as Anne Blythe of The News & Observer in Raleigh reported. King will get to run for council.

But state officials also voted to uphold a decision by a different GOP-controlled county board that’s likely to affect student voters. That was the move in Watauga County, in the mountainous western part of the state, to close an early-voting site on the campus of Appalachian State University. The county board had earlier approved another Republican plan to combine three general election polling sites into one—a venue with limited parking, remote from the campus—but backtracked on that decision before the state board could rule on it. (Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Pasquotank County was covered under Section 5 of the VRA—meaning changes to its election laws required federal “preclearance”—while Watauga County was not.)

In the days after the county board’s meeting, Charlotte’s NBC affiliate sent reporter Jeremy Markovich to Boone, where Appalachian State is located, to check out the story. Here’s one of the segments featuring his reporting—pay attention in particular to the interviews with the GOP chairman of the elections board and the elections director:

When Markovich asks Luke Eggers, the board chairman, to explain the reason for the change, Eggers replies, “It makes it more efficient. It makes it easier for us to canvass, makes it easier for us to staff.” Asked if he means easier for the board of elections or for voters, Eggers adds, “I believe it’s going to be easier for both.”

Cut to the longtime elections director, who tells a different story: “I cannot say that it would save either time or money,” she tells Markovich. “It would be challenging to us to vote 9,000 people in one location.” The segment could have been even more pointed—maybe by following up further to ask Eggers, “How, exactly?”—but it was a telling juxtaposition set up by Markovich’s questioning.

As this story spreads to other counties, reporters in North Carolina should be prepared to get local officials on the record about proposed changes—and to press them to explain why they’re needed.

At the state level, nailing down McCrory and lawmakers who backed the sweeping law has often proved difficult. The governor released a 95-second video defending the bill when he signed it, but he only focused on the Voter ID aspect, as Slate’s David Weigel pointed out. He’s continued that approach in op-ed columns.

Some North Carolina reporters, like WRAL’s Laura Leslie, have made a point of highlighting McCrory’s obfuscation as he continues to ignore the many other aspects of his sweeping law. He is, she wrote, “sticking to voter ID with the same comparisons he’s been using since his last campaign.”

I’ve seen less scrutiny of specific state legislators in the coverage, and less emphasis on getting them on the record. The lack of answers has left the opinion pages to do much of the heavy lifting in explaining why Republicans, in a state where voter participation has been on the rise, might overhaul the voting laws. Here’s how News & Observer columnist Rob Christensen answered that question:

North Carolina had the biggest increase in the country in voter participation between 2004 and 2008. But as far as the Republicans were concerned that was a bad thing, because many of the new voters were young voters attracted to the candidacy of Barack Obama. In 2008, 74 percent of North Carolina voters between ages 18-29 voted for Obama, according to exit polls.

…Republicans made a major push to win over young voters last year, putting operatives in the state at fairs and NASCAR events, and using social media to tell them how bad the economy was under Obama. Despite their efforts, Obama still won 67 percent of the 18-29 age group in North Carolina in November, according to exit polls.

So Republicans moved to Plan B - if you can’t win over young people, make it harder for them to vote.

Be passionate, and don’t cede the story to the national media

John L. Robinson, former editor of the Greensboro News & Record and now an influential blogger, has been offering advice to North Carolina newspapers about how best to explain what’s happening in Raleigh. Back in July, he called for “fist-pounding editorials” about the (then-proposed) voting restrictions and other parts of the GOP agenda, published on the front page of in-state newspapers. He told me some papers have done it. Most haven’t.

When the elections bill became law, much of the national media—especially left-leaning outlets, but also mainstream newspapers—grabbed the story quickly, but initial coverage in North Carolina was more scattershot. John Frank of The News & Observer made this observation a day after McCrory signed the law.

National news outlets jumped on the North Carolina bill signing. The Atlantic, Washington Post and the wire services all had their own stories. In North Carolina, the news didn’t land with a universal splash. The News & Observer, Charlotte Observer, Asheville Citizen-Times and Wilmington Star-News ran it on the front-page. But newspapers in Fayetteville, Greensboro, Burlington, Gaston and elsewhere didn’t give it prominent treatment.

The Gaston Gazette did publish a prominent front-page report two days later, and in the following weeks North Carolina devoted more space and attention to the issue. But Robinson likens the in-state media’s reaction to the voting laws changes to the old, apocryphal story about a frog complacently boiling in a slowly-warming pot.

“We in North Carolina have seen this coming ever since the Legislature has been at work,” Robinson told me. “We’ve been in the water as it has gotten hotter and hotter. Outside the state, media organizations have just seen the boiling water and, of course, leaped.”

In some cases, like this column in the tiny Mt. Airy News, critical attention from the national media was actually the news hook for a discussion of what was happening in the state.

I reached out to Kirk Ross, editor of The Carolina Mercury and a journalist who has reported on the legislature for multiple other outlets, to ask about the different approaches of national and in-state media. He pointed to the historical context surrounding a provision of the new law that broadens the ability for one state resident to challenge another person’s vote.

“Voter intimidation is a real worry and has a huge and evil history in the South,” Ross said. “It’s real. I think the MSNBC folks got that, but I’m not sure who else did.”

On voter fraud—like everything else—facts trump ‘he said, she said’

In McCrory’s video defense of the elections bill, he says the law is aimed at “ensuring that no one’s vote is disenfranchised by a fraudulent ballot.”

I’ve argued before in CJR about the need for clarifying coverage on the topic of voter fraud—for reporting that steers clear of the he-said, she-said pitfall, and for journalists to avoid attributing something that can be stated as fact.

In covering the North Carolina law, reporting like this from The News & Observer could be better:

Advocates of voter ID laws claim such measures are needed to make sure people voting are who they say they are and have the right to vote.

But critics have highlighted the limited number of voter fraud cases across the country. Instead, they describe the ID laws and other elections revisions as attempts to squelch a young voting bloc.

It’s true, critics have pointed to the limited number of voter fraud cases. But those numbers are also facts that can be stated as such in the reporter’s own voice. Instead of quoting unnamed “critics” or partisan sources, reporters would do better to cite data from the state elections board or independent databases, or quote reliable independent voices like NYU’sUC-Irvine’s Rick Hasen, author of The Voting Wars.

Some of the coverage, in-state and out, has gotten this right. Here’s how NPR’s Ailsa Chang handled this point when reporting on the North Carolina law:

A lot of residents are applauding this new rule requiring picture IDs, such as Mac Lawrence. He’s supervising big machines cropping leaves in his tobacco field.

“I think there’s a lot of folks voting in more than one place. If you can’t prove who you are, then you ought not be able to vote,” Lawrence says.

Actually, evidence of voter fraud in North Carolina is pretty minimal. The State Board of Elections has reported only two cases of voter impersonation fraud in the past 10 years.

(Here’s a thought: maybe the reason Lawrence thinks “a lot of folks” are committing in-person voter fraud is because he keeps hearing elected leaders say it’s the reason the state needs new laws.)

And Raleigh TV station WNCN produced an entire story on the subject right after the legislature passed the law, under the headline, “Widespread voter fraud not an issue in NC, data shows.” From Jake Seaton’s report:

One of the more compelling arguments for voter identification is the suppression of voter fraud. But for North Carolina, the number of cases of voter fraud reported by the state Board of Elections is minimal.

In 2012, nearly 7 million ballots were cast in the general and two primary elections. Of those 6,947,317 ballots, the state Board of Elections said 121 alleged cases of voter fraud were referred to the appropriate district attorney’s office.

That means of the nearly 7 million votes cast, voter fraud accounted for 0.00174 percent of the ballots.

Looking back at the 2010 election cycle — which was not a presidential year — 3.79 million ballots were cast and only 28 cases of voter fraud were turned over to the appropriate DA’s office. So in 2010, voter fraud accounted for 0.000738 percent of ballots cast.

That’s good stuff. But factchecking and record-correcting is just the start. Robinson, the ex-News & Record editor, told me he felt many media outlets in North Carolina have treated the events in Raleigh, including the passage of the new voting law, as “business as usual.” The broader challenge, especially for in-state journalists, is to deliver coverage that captures and communicates what’s at stake, and that reflects the drastic changes being made to the Tar Heel tradition.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com. Tags: , , , , , , , ,