On election nights past, ProPublica staffers were more likely to be found at home watching the results roll in on TV or online than in the newsroom. The nonprofit, public-interest journalism outfit isn’t in the business of tracking the vote. But this year, it’s trying something new. Working out of a temporary newsroom setup at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York, it will be the hub of a country-wide network of journalists, journalism students, and concerned citizens tracking and reporting on problems that prevent people from voting. Amid Donald Trump’s cries of a “rigged” election and a “crooked” news media, more than 300 newsrooms—at least one in every state—have signed on to participate in the Electionland project to ensure voter problems are surfaced, reported, and rectified by the time the polls close on Election Day, when it counts.
The Electionland coalition, which also includes Google News Lab, WNYC, CUNY, First Draft, Univision, and USA Today, will be monitoring social media feeds and Google searches to identify locations where voters are having problems, and it will have access to reports phoned into the Election Protection Voter Hotline, which is run by a national, nonpartisan coalition of volunteers. Claire Wardle, Research Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and founding member of First Draft, is overseeing the training of some 550 students at 14 journalism schools around the country who will help monitor and verify social media posts. Electionland has recruited everyday citizens to report problems via text message. When a tip comes in, the story will be assigned to a partner news outlet via email or through a dedicated Slack setup reporters can monitor. Stories will also be published on the Electionland website.
The subject of voting issues often inspires thoughts of voter fraud. Indeed, last Wednesday three people were reported to police in Polk County, Florida on suspicion of voter fraud, and one of them was arrested for allegedly voting twice for Donald Trump (she claimed due to fears the election would be rigged).
Derek Willis, the news apps developer at ProPublica who helped build Electionland, has first-hand experience of voter fraud. In 2005, he moved from Washington, DC, to Maryland, and assumed his name had been scrubbed from the DC electoral roll. But two years after the 2012 election, officials from the Office of the State Prosecutor showed up at his door and questioned him about a dodgy vote someone else had cast in his name.
“In-person voter fraud does happen,” he says, but he points out that it’s rare. “Academic reviews have tallied up maybe a few dozen cases in the past 10 years or so.” The likelihood of widespread voter fraud occurring in US elections is low because of the way the system is designed, says Willis. “It’s one of these things where it’s theoretically possible, but actually doing it would require an incredible set of circumstances and coincidences.”
The more common problems prevent or deter people from voting: excessively long queues, changes to voter ID laws that block people from casting ballots, problems with voting machines, and cases where polling places have changed their location or hours, or don’t have enough workers on hand. Those are the kinds of issues the Electionland project will highlight. “Presidential elections bring out voters who don’t vote in other elections,” says Willis. “We’ll be reporting on issues with people who are infrequent voters and not as familiar with how elections are run in their areas.”
Willis anticipates the main action will take place Nov. 8, when more than a dozen ProPublica staffers will be hunkered down at CUNY, but the team has already begun its work. Early voting began in Texas last week, and Twitter immediately lit up with reports of incorrect voter ID information displayed on posters in Bexar County. “Texas requires voter ID, but it recently changed the types of IDs that are required,” says Willis. “We saw a social media post that said, ‘Hey, there’s this sign in the polling place that lists the acceptable forms of ID, but it’s the wrong one.’ They took a picture of it. We were able to flag that and then asked the Secretary of State about it and they were like, ‘Yep, this is not the right poster, it’s being removed, and we’re going to replace it with the right one.’ That’s kind of the thing that we’re looking for.”
— Molly E Neck (@MollyENeck) October 24, 2016
ProPublica posted about the incident on the Electionland website, and the problem also was reported in the Texas Tribune and The New York Times. On top of these kinds of reports, the Electionland site also is publishing guides to early voting along with smackdowns of myths that are circulating about the prevalence of voter fraud and whether George Soros owns voting machines to rig the election (Spoiler: he doesn’t).
Willis describes the first-time project as an experiment. “We don’t know how the voting experience is going to be nationwide. We also aren’t totally sure that the system that we’re setting up is the absolute best, right way to do this,” he says. “We’re testing it out and seeing how it goes.”
Prior to joining ProPublica in August 2015, Willis spent seven years as an interactive news developer at The New York Times. Over that time, he has seen the possibilities for covering elections expand in concert with the amount and type of data available. “Ten to 15 years ago it would have been very difficult to do this kind of project, or even to prepare for it,” he says. “But now there’s data out there, not just in real-time on social, but also about how elections are conducted, what voters do, which voters participate. To me, if we don’t do something with that then we’re not really capturing a part of the election that we should.”
According to Willis, every Election Day is a special snowflake with its own “weird circumstances,” but he hopes by Nov. 8, the team will have enough experience under its belt that it will be up for the challenge. “Ideally we’re able to find out where we have flaws or problems in the voting process and then local news organizations can report on them as quickly as possible on Election Day and make it easier for people who are eligible to vote, to actually cast a ballot,” he says. If all goes well, ProPublica will consider whether the project can be replicated on a smaller scale for gubernatorial, state, and local elections in the future.