Early this month, when mail-in voting glitches in Franklin County, Ohio, became national news, Kelley Stocker, a high school teacher, was stressed. She saw the headlines: nearly fifty thousand voters received incorrect mail-in ballots; in 2016, the district had gone to Hillary Clinton, even as the state voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Upon hearing about the recent mix-up, Trump cried foul on Twitter. Stocker—who is thirty-nine and lives in Columbus—tuned in to the local six o’clock news, where she found only fear-inducing segments, with a few cursory clips on what the county’s board of elections was doing to confront the problem. She didn’t see clear, practical advice on how the mail-in process would work or what she should do. “Even as a government teacher, this election has been a little confusing, which is scary,” Stocker said.
Given the country’s decentralized election system—a patchwork of rules determined state by state—local news outlets play a crucial role in serving voters information. For local reporters in Ohio, the ballot-distribution error was an opportunity to provide valuable guidance—especially considering, on the national level, the rampant disinformation about election interference and voter fraud. This year, amid the pandemic, many people are voting by mail for the first time; there’s bound to be head-scratching and doubt. Franklin County sent out a record 237,498 absentee ballots for this election; Ohio’s overall early-voting turnout is also hitting a new high.
Eventually, Stocker found answers by tuning in to WOSU, her local news radio station and NPR affiliate. One of its shows, All Sides with Ann Fisher, has been her go-to source. “It’s sort of Voting 101,” Fisher said. “We do everything from the incredibly arcane to the prosaic.”
Making people confident about the vote is the most democratically loving thing I can do right now as a journalist.
Fisher, who’s hosted All Sides since 2009, pitched the idea for a series providing practical information on voting in March, after seeing confusion around Ohio’s primary race: the day before voting was scheduled to take place, Mike DeWine, Ohio’s governor, postponed the election because of COVID-19, forcing many to cast their ballots by mail. With no end to the pandemic in sight, Fisher predicted a difficult November. Since August, she’s hosted six call-in shows, featuring election administrators and voting-rights experts. “In past cycles, those shows have been kind of boring,” Mike Thompson, WOSU’s news programming director, said. “Not this year. We were bombarded with calls. All kinds of questions. Good questions. Scenarios we haven’t even thought of that voters were asking us.”
Fisher enjoys the work. “Making people confident about the vote is the most democratically loving thing I can do right now as a journalist,” she said.
OHIO HAS LONG HELD A SPECIAL PLACE on the electoral map. Since the start of the twentieth century, only two presidents, both Democrats, have won an election without Ohio. Its relevance to national campaigns—and major news outlets—has afforded local journalists a sense of high-stakes importance. “We have always treated a presidential election as a local story,” Thompson said. “Up until this cycle, the candidates would be in town or in the nearby region once a week.”
The first presidential election Thompson covered as a general assignment reporter at WOSU was in 2004, when George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 118,457 votes in Ohio, a margin that could have swung the election either way. “There were lots of questions about that race,” Thompson recalled. “Long lines in inner-city polling places; no lines in suburban polling places. We investigated that at the time.”
This year, neither campaign has been as present as usual, and, thanks to the delay in the primaries, the Democratic nomination was all but secured by the time Ohioans made it to the polls. Thompson realized that the big story of the fall would be voting rights. Fisher’s call-in shows are part of a broader effort by WOSU to ensure that information is available to voters: An online guide looks just how you wish a government-run info site would, with simple graphics breaking down mail-in voting into four steps. Deadlines are bolded. WOSU even embedded pastel-palette, Muzak-backed videos with a host detailing how to request and fill out absentee ballots. There’s no mention of a political persuasion, just clarity. (The guide links out to a separate page with details about the candidates and issues in each district.)
WOSU is not the only Columbus-area outlet that has aimed to help voters navigate an election shaped by COVID-19 and fears of disenfranchisement. “When the calendar turned from 2019 to 2020, I would not have expected to be writing as many ‘how-to’ stories as we have been,” Rick Rouan, a political reporter at the Columbus Dispatch, said. “I think those have been really valuable.” Rouan was among those who received the wrong absentee ballot (the down-ballot candidates he saw weren’t running in his district). He wondered whether he would have noticed the error if he didn’t follow local politics professionally. So he called election administrators at the Franklin County Board of Elections, as well as voter advocates across Ohio. One of them pointed to a small number on the lower right corner of his ballot. Rouan showed Dispatch readers how to check their ballots, too, in an article that ran in early October. There was still no plan in place to deliver voters their proper ballots, though. “There’s always another story we’re looking to tell,” Rouan said.
Not everyone reads the Dispatch, however. (In CJR, it recently earned the nickname “Ohio’s Whitest Home Newspaper.”) Some residents, particularly people of color, seek out alternative sources of information. Benjamin Mudrak, an eighteen-year-old college senior, gets the Akron Beacon Journal while he’s home, in Kent, for the semester; the Journal’s voter guide has a ballot explainer and outlines candidates’ platforms. Occasionally, he tunes in to his NPR affiliate station, AKSU. A first-time voter, Mudrak also referred to his party’s mailer when filling out his ballot, which he submitted early, in person. Janika Adler, a thirty-one-year-old stay-at-home mom in Plain City, relies on her own research and her free local county paper, the Madison Messenger, which gets delivered to her house without her having to subscribe. The Messenger has published blurbs about candidates’ backgrounds and plans. “It’s really helpful,” Adler said.
IN OTHER BATTLEGROUND STATES, local outlets have tried to fill information gaps with voting guides of their own. In Pennsylvania, voters can turn to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s site for a breakdown of ways to vote and what to know. In Michigan, a nonprofit called Bridge Detroit has ongoing “civic and community information” coverage that includes the locations of satellite vote centers and drop box sites. The Tampa Bay Times has a guide to Florida state candidates and issues, along with answers to commonly asked questions about voting. Arizona Public Media, another NPR affiliate, has a “Your Vote 2020” page with an election candidate guide and a “what’s on my ballot” page with top races and initiatives.
For Stocker, listening to WOSU cleared up the questions she had. After assessing her options, she chose to vote early, in person. Others are still figuring it out. “Keeping track of all the candidates and their records is time-consuming,” Joe Robbins, a thirty-one-year-old from Westerville, Ohio, said. He’s been checking out the Dispatch guide. It doesn’t offer much editorial guidance, but it’s better than nothing, he decided. “I honestly don’t know how anyone else even figures out who they’re going to vote for.”Shinhee Kang, Ian Karbal, and Feven Merid are CJR fellows.