When American voters go to the polls, journalists are always close behind, observing, interviewing and investigating. Newsrooms have a lot to do on Election Day and Journalist’s Resource wants to help. So we reached out to several experienced political journalists for advice on how news organizations can make the best use of their time at local precincts. We also asked scholars who research polling place dynamics how reporters can do a better job spotting problems and contextualizing the information they gather.
Here are the 11 tips they gave us:
- Lay some groundwork before Election Day.
Election Day can be hectic, so it’s important to establish key contacts before voters go to the polls. These sources can also help journalists parse newsworthy events from non-news events.
“Go and meet your local election administrator,” ProPublica election reporter Jessica Huseman told Journalist’s Resource by email. “Ask them to help you test out the machines, ask to see the user manuals for the machines, ask about common problems voters face at the polls. This will allow you to tell the difference between a real problem a voter might face that is out of the ordinary, and a humdrum problem voters face frequently that the county is likely equipped to deal with.”
Local election coverage veteran and Western Kentucky University Public Radio reporter Lisa Autry agrees: “Start early. Don’t wait until the campaign period to plan election coverage. Much research and reporting can be done in advance.”
- Assume nothing about the voters you encounter.
At polling locations, Letitia Stein, a former political reporter at Reuters, suggests asking voters basic questions about their age, hometown, occupation and party affiliation as well as which candidates they chose and ballot measures they supported or opposed. She warns against making any assumptions about voters. After covering battleground state politics in recent years — she left for a new job last month — Stein knows traditional voting habits do not necessarily apply in today’s environment.
“Lifelong Dems voted for [Donald] Trump,” she says. “Republicans may be willing to look at a Democratic candidate. I met liberals who did not vote at all, or cast third-party ballots, out of distrust for Hillary Clinton. Polls and pundits spend a lot of time talking about voting groups by race, education and income levels, but we need to take care not to assume we know what any individual is thinking because of such labels.”
- Avoid posting photos of long lines at voting locations.
Charles Stewart, a political science professor at MIT who co-directs the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, says such photos not only can be misleading, but they also might discourage voting.
“I’ve spent a lot of time studying long lines and wait times, and I’ve come to conclude that the least informative photograph that appears on every local news site on Election Day is the one showing long lines at the polls,” he says. “The reason that is uninformative is that it says nothing about what the lines will look like an hour or two later. That photo tells you how many people stood in line when the doors opened. That can be destructive because it can send a message: ‘Don’t show up and vote.’”
- Don’t rush to judgment about the cause of long lines.
Long lines might not be the result of understaffing or too few voting machines, notes Robert M. Stein, a political science professor at Rice University who studies elections and voting behavior. “Reporters want to look around and ask, ‘What’s going on here? Why is there a long line here? Did they not anticipate turnout?’” says Stein, who is unrelated to reporter Letitia Stein.
Some delays are caused by confusion over voter identification. There are 35 states that require or request some form of identification to vote. It takes additional time to answer questions about voter IDs and provide a voter whose eligibility cannot be verified with a provisional ballot, Stein explains. His research finds that when states require voters to have a photo ID, it takes people longer to check in to vote at polling places serving minority neighborhoods. Black and Hispanic voters are less likely to have a photo ID, Robert Stein says.
He likens the resulting delay to what happens on a highway when a vehicle is disabled. “One car breaks down and it can shut down the whole highway,” he says.
- Be aware of and report on any new voting technology in your jurisdiction.
Voting precincts may be using certain technologies for the first time: ballot scanners, electronic voting machines and identification card scanners, to name a few.
“A lot of counties and states have passed new voting laws or have purchased new equipment that will be in use for the first time this election,” Huseman explained. “This is likely to create some normal confusion, so it’s really important to be familiar with the new technology and aware of how it works.”
Ryland Barton, capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio, agrees that journalists need to familiarize themselves with any new voting technology in their area.
“There’s lots of attention these days on how election machines work,” Barton explained via email. “Are they electronic-only ballots? Election experts worry that these machines can be vulnerable to hacks/errors. Gold standard these days is electronic with a paper backup. What does your precinct/state do?”
The MIT Election Data and Science Lab provides a good overview of modern voting technologies. The Election Official and Voter Equipment Entry database from Election Data Services, a nonpartisan consulting firm, can also direct you to election officials and voting equipment by state and county.
- Understand that problems at polling places might not be what they seem.
Stewart says if things aren’t running smoothly at a poll, it’s important to get context.
“I’ve seen people go to vote and they’re in the wrong precinct and there is an unpleasant encounter between the person at the table and the voter,” Stewart says. “That can be interpreted as being a number of things, like suppressing the vote or something like that. I think in the realm of people who get turned away, it’s important to understand the context. Don’t characterize it based on what you observe. What you observe is valuable, but there may be context. It might be the polling place is not implementing the law correctly. Or, it could be it was done properly and it’s the voter who was at fault. Election law is very detailed and not everyone grasps it.”
There are lots of other things that can deter people from voting. A polling place in an isolated area, far from main thoroughfares might see lower turnout, Robert Stein explains. Inadequate lighting can be a problem for women and the elderly — they might feel vulnerable standing in lines in the early morning or late afternoon when it’s dark, he says. Inadequate parking is another deterrent.
“It doesn’t do voters a service to call attention to problems that do not impact their ability to vote, or to exaggerate the impact of small problems,” according to Huseman. “Pace yourself and consult with neutral voting experts so that you can ensure your coverage is not swayed by the loudest voices in the room.”
- Have an idea of who you want to interview at a polling place.
There are lots of people to talk to on Election Day. The Election Legal Guide from the Reporter’s Committee on the Freedom of the Press has more information on where newsgathering is allowed at polling places — but overall rights and restrictions for journalists are not clear-cut, and may hinge on relationships reporters have developed with elections staff.
Still, talk to as many voters as possible outside the polls and seek a diversity of voices across age, race, sex and political leaning, advised Kentucky Public Radio’s Barton.
“You’re safe to stand outside the building, but I always hang out in the parking lot,” explained Autry, the WKU Public Radio reporter, in an email. “I’m always careful not to ambush voters. I typically keep my recorder and mic down at my side and gently approach voters, let them know who I am and ask if they would mind offering a comment. If they’re willing to speak, I don’t come right out and ask who they voted for because that’s a personal thing, but I ask, ‘Do you mind telling me who you voted for, but if you want to keep that private, I understand.’ I tend to ask questions like what issues are most important to you, is there a single issue that drove you to the polls.”
Besides voters, here are a few ideas for sources:
Poll workers: Try not to get in the way of people working at polling places, Stewart says. But when poll workers have downtime, this can be a good opportunity to gather information.
Barton shared these ideas:
“Sometimes poll workers will make available the running tally of how many folks have voted and can compare it to years past. Ask if they’ll speculate on what makes this year different? Usually they’re not inclined to talk about political issues, but they might weigh in on the weather/some event that has voters’ attention elsewhere. Also, voting machines can be confusing, especially if there are new voting machines. Ask poll workers if there’s any confusion.”
The election warden: Sometimes called an “election judge” or “precinct election officer” this is the person in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly and according to state and jurisdiction rules. Wardens might be able to provide information on problems with new technology that might not be immediately apparent, Stewart says.
The registrar: Sometimes called a county clerk or supervisor of elections, this person oversees elections in a specific jurisdiction such as a city or county. Before Election Day, be sure to find out the best way to reach this person on Election Day.
- Know your election laws. Journalists can sometimes do things the general public can’t.
From ballot selfies to voter list accuracy, the National Council on State Legislatures is one place to find resources on laws and rules about elections. In particular, check out their State Elections Legislation Database.
“Journalists oftentimes can take photographs at polling places so long as they’re not of people actually marking their ballot,” Stewart says. “Whereas there might be a state law against generally taking photographs at polling places.”
- Ask about provisional ballots.
Federal law allows voters whose eligibility is uncertain to cast provisional ballots, also referred to in some states as “challenge ballots” or “affidavit ballots.” They’re usually kept separate from other ballots until after an election, when officials will inspect them and determine whether the voter was eligible to vote and if his or her ballot should be counted.
Things journalists should watch for and ask about: Are people who are given a provisional ballot at a polling location filling them out? Are those who leave with them bringing them back and turning them in? Are those ballots being counted — and if not, why not?
“Reporters who hear about provisional voting rarely come back to see if the votes were cast and if it was accepted,” Robert Stein says.
- Don’t try to predict who won.
For reporters new to covering elections, what’s one rookie mistake to avoid? “Trying to predict the outcome of an election based on observations of polling places on Election Day,” according to Barton. “Don’t try to predict; we’ll know the answers soon enough!”
In other words, don’t guess winners and losers based on what you observe at the polls. The elections division or office in charge of voting in your jurisdiction will have the official tally.
- Familiarize yourself with research on how polling locations can influence voter choices.
There’s a great deal of academic research that examines why voters choose certain candidates or oppose or support certain political issues. But some research has found a link between voting behaviors and the physical place where voters go to make their selections. For example, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2008 finds that people in Arizona whose polling place was inside a school were more likely to support increasing the state sales tax to raise money for public education, as compared with people who voted at other locations. A 2010 paper published in Political Psychology finds that people who voted in churches during two elections in South Carolina were more likely to choose a conservative candidate and a ban on same-sex marriage.
Looking for more ideas to bolster your election coverage? Don’t miss 8 tips for covering U.S. elections from a former elections administrator, our cautionary research roundup on covering political polls and what the research says about the consequences of horse race reporting.