American elections are highly decentralized, with local and state laws and processes governing election administration in more than 10,000 jurisdictions across the country. As in elections past, issues will pop up in some jurisdictions and not in others. It’s critical for journalists to understand what those issues might be, how the misinformation ecosystem will accelerate both founded and unfounded claims, and how journalists can responsibly report on those issues to inform their audiences and hold officials accountable.
The Trusted Elections Network has consulted with election experts and journalists involved in the project to compile 13 tips to help reporters cover the issues most likely to pop up during mail voting, in-person voting, and after Election Day.
1: Know your jurisdiction’s drop boxes – what they look like and where they are located.
How this comes up: Local election officials are placing ballot drop boxes in communities as an additional way for voters to return their mail ballots. But their growing popularity has also brought problems – and litigation – about their security and whether there are enough of them.
Potential misinformation: Drop boxes have been the subject of misinformation in many jurisdictions where they have been installed. In Michigan, for example, someone made videos that showed drop boxes with problems. One showed a box that was not properly secured and an envelope could be seen inside when it was opened. Another showed an election worker struggling to secure a box. The videos were real, but according to Michigan’s secretary of state they represented misinformation. The videos were shot before the state mailed out its ballots, and the envelope shown at the bottom of one of them did not appear to be an absentee ballot.
What journalists should know and do: Journalists should know the locations of the boxes, what they look like in their jurisdictions, how they are secured in both indoor and outdoor settings, and what the outside of their ballot envelopes look like. If someone circulates a fake or doctored picture, this knowledge will help journalists identify whether it was manipulated. They should also make clear to voters what happens to their ballots when they use unofficial ballot receptacles, like the controversial drop boxes set up in California by the Republican Party.
2: Know your state laws around third-party ballot collection, or “ballot harvesting.”
How this comes up: Many states allow voters to designate a third party, most often a relative but sometimes a political campaign or other community or advocacy organization, to collect and return their mail ballot on their behalf. Advocates argue the practice makes voting more accessible, especially for voters with limited mail service, rural voters and voters with disabilities. Detractors suggest the practice may make electoral fraud more likely, as in the 2018 North Carolina Ninth Congressional District election.
Potential misinformation: Third-party ballot collection has led to incidences of electoral fraud, though problems are rare. Still, the practice is often a target for misleading information and exaggerated claims of fraud. Such claims may make voters less likely to allow a third party to return their ballot or to trust the results of an election where the practice is allowed and highly visible. Confusion about the practice, however, may also lead to individuals illegally but unwittingly returning a ballot on behalf of a friend or family member.
What journalists should know and do: Clearly outline the laws and practices in place in the jurisdictions you cover related to third-party ballot collection. The National Conference of State Legislatures outlines state law related to the practice, though ongoing litigation and new guidance in the midst of the pandemic may affect those laws; so it’s best to check with local election officials about ballot collection practices in your area. Covering ballot collection practices can also present an opportunity to remind voters how they can safely, securely and legally return their mail ballots.
3: When ballots are found in unusual places, explain that such cases are rare and that safeguards exist to protect votes.
How this comes up: Recent cases in which ballots have been found outside the normal processing system have made the national news. That includes an incident in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in which an independent contractor mistakenly discarded nine military ballots. Local news outlets have also reported incidents of mail having been dumped, some of which might include ballots.
Potential misinformation: In an effort to suggest that these are intentional, fraudulent incidents aimed at swaying the election, President Donald Trump and his allies have highlighted, exaggerated and twisted these incidents. At a recent town hall on NBC News, he falsely said “thousands of ballots” had been found in dumpsters. A recent report by the Election Integrity Partnership explained how these dumped-mail stories get reframed in misleading ways. With dumped mail and ballots, whole-cloth fabrications can spread. In Sonoma County, California, someone took a picture of 2018 ballot envelopes that the county had placed in recycling bins and then presented it as mail-in ballots found in a dumpster.
What journalists should know and do: When journalists hear about mail that has been dumped, or ballots that have been found in unexpected places, they should explain that it is rare. It is also an opportunity to tell voters how they can track ballots they fear have been lost.
Putting these cases in context can give people a sense of the scale of the problem but also head off misinformation that is aimed at delegitimizing the vote. “It’s really important for journalists to note at the top that instances of this kind of conduct are rare at best,” said David Levine, a former elections administrator and elections integrity fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “And it’s really important to say that when people put out allegations, they’re just that unless proven.”
4: Let your audiences know what to expect if they’re contacted about an issue with their ballot.
How this comes up: Inevitably, some voters will have issues with their absentee ballot, often because they forgot to include a key piece of information or their signature doesn’t match the one on file. Although only 18 states have permanent laws requiring voters to be notified of issues with their ballot, other states have adopted processes this year to require or encourage that voters be notified. Still, there’s a lot of uncertainty into how that will play out.
Potential misinformation: Voters may hear about ballots being rejected and get concerned that their ballot won’t count or that they can’t correct a mistake (which is unfortunately true in many states). Scammers might try to contact voters falsely reporting an error with their ballot, saying they need to pay money or take some other action to correct the issue. Bad actors might also run information campaigns that discourage voters from taking corrective actions.
What journalists should know and do: Contact state and local election officials to determine if, how, and when they will contact voters about ballot issues and let voters in your community know what to expect. Let voters know how they can check the status of their absentee ballot, either by using online ballot tracking tools (for applicable jurisdictions) or by contacting their election offices directly. Reporters should also know how this “curing” process works and explain common reasons why signatures might not match, said Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor to The Democracy Fund’s election program. (The Democracy Fund supports general operations at API and also contributes to ElectionSOS and Trusting News, two projects fiscally hosted at API.)
5: Understand the context and factors that cause long polling place lines before reporting on them.
How this comes up: Early voting is happening in your state or it’s Election Day, and long lines are appearing outside polling places. The visuals are striking — and the stories of people waiting in line for a long time are compelling — so a lot of headlines mention long lines at the polls and are often coupled with photos of dissatisfied voters.
Potential misinformation: By capturing a moment in time at polling places, reporters may distort what is actually a fluid situation that can improve or remain a problem. Long lines don’t exist in a vacuum and are driven by a variety of factors — which make up what experts call queuing theory. As the Brennan Center explains about long voting lines, these factors include “the arrival rate of voters, the amount of available resources to process them, and the time it takes to vote.” Changes brought on by the pandemic (for example, social distancing making lines seem longer) or changes that happened before the pandemic (such as new voting machines in Pennsylvania and Georgia) are also at play. More importantly, long lines are not distributed evenly. A Bipartisan Policy Center report on recommendations for managing polling place lines said long lines are not the norm for most voters but instead “are correlated with larger precincts; precincts unable to handle early morning lines; and precincts that are more urban, dense, and have higher minority populations.”
What journalists should know and do: The long lines by themselves aren’t necessarily the story. The factors that caused them and the response by election officials should be central to the reporting, though. When long lines occur, the voters who walked away without voting, who lost confidence in elections and who wasted time are just as important to cover and contextualize.
Reporters can ask about poll workers and their preparation, voting machine issues, and the reallocation of resources at polling places. What backups exist for paper balloting, for example, if machines go down? Polling places tend to be busiest when they open, so account for that delay. Recognize that urban populations and communities of color are more adversely affected by long lines. If you need to include “long lines” within a headline, try to contextualize that takeaway, as Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting does in his headline, “Why Do Nonwhite Georgia Voters Have to Wait in Line for Hours? Too Few Polling Places.“
High voter engagement is also a factor this election, and mixed messaging or voter anxiety about mail ballots may drive in-person turnout in some areas. Larry Norden, director of the election reform program at the Brennan Center, said it’s a tricky time for election officials trying to prognosticate about turnout at polling places. Some of them could cut back on polling place resources as more mail ballots roll in, he said, when the higher mail ballot numbers could actually indicate higher overall enthusiasm and turnout this year. Voters who requested mail ballots may decide to vote in person instead, causing extra processing time at the polls. States with same-day voter registration may also see added time processing eligible new voters who didn’t register prior to Election Day.
6: Reporters should understand their jurisdictions’ polling technology.
How this comes up: Machines occasionally have issues, whether they are the actual voting machines or electronic poll books, which are tablet devices poll workers use to check people into the voting station. When technology breaks down, delays happen. Lines get longer. Voters complain. The delays might be temporary or they might be lasting (it’s more concerning if they’re lasting). Either way, reports about these delays, long lines and voter complaints make their way to reporters, or circulate on social media.
Potential misinformation: These incidents are subject to several types of misinformation. Some people might exaggerate minor problems, claim that the machines are “rigged,” and most alarmingly, suggest that they have been “hacked.” Pictures will circulate of poll workers trying to fix or reprogram machines. Some of the photos might even be manipulated or are old photos from past years being passed off as current.
What journalists should know and do: Reporters should know precisely what kinds of machines their local jurisdictions use so that they can quickly explain how the machines are supposed to work. Problems with voting machines, for example, are different from the more likely problem with e-poll books, for example. “Voters might hear, ‘The voting machines aren’t working,’ when the voting machines were actually fine. It’s just that the e-poll books weren’t able to check people in,” said the Brennan Center’s Norden.
The Democracy Fund’s Patrick recommends that reporters have pictures handy of the voting machines in use at their local jurisdictions so that they can quickly tell whether a photo is fake.
Finally, context is critically important, said David Becker, executive director at the Center for Election Innovation and Research. If a reporter hears from one voter that there was some kind of malfunction, they need to report out the scale and scope of the problem, he said, asking basic questions such as, “Were you able to vote? Were you able to get a provisional ballot? Were there any others? How many people is this affecting? How many counties is this affecting? How many states is this affecting?”
“The story that one voter who happens to know a reporter had trouble with a polling place and they get on the local television news at noon — that is not a story,” he said.
7: Understand how poll workers are trained and what poll workers do.
How this comes up: Poll workers and other election officials are essential to the voting process, but their roles and responsibilities can be unclear for many voters. Voters may be unsure if instructions provided by poll workers are legal. And poll workers do sometimes make mistakes during the voting process that can affect voting behavior and voter confidence. With some older poll workers hesitant to volunteer in the midst of a pandemic, it is likely that voters will see many new poll workers this year with less training and experience.
The misinformation potential: Unverified claims about how poll workers are trained or actions they perform during voting can undermine voter confidence. Snopes recently debunked a claim suggesting that poll workers were being instructed to invalidate votes by writing on them, though no aspect of that claim proved true. But even verifiable claims, like this recent example of a Tennessee poll worker being fired for improperly turning away voters for wearing “Black Lives Matter” apparel, can be spread without context to suggest malicious voter suppression rather than the more banal explanation of insufficient training or understanding of state law.
What journalists should know and do: Reach out to election officials to understand the guidance and instructions poll workers receive so that you can contextualize claims about poll worker behavior, should they arise. Let audiences know, too, what is and isn’t allowed at polling places in your jurisdiction, including any restrictions on clothing, electioneering and campaigning, or the use of cameras inside polling places.
8: Know your jurisdiction’s electioneering rules and how COVID-19 distancing is affecting activity outside the polls.
How this comes up: Voters might complain that they feel intimidated by activists outside polling places because long lines this year could extend beyond the “electioneering” boundaries, or the distance from the polls that campaign activity is prohibited. Every state has different laws establishing those distances.
Potential misinformation: One misleading claim that reporters might hear is that these activists have created an organized voter intimidation campaign. “It’s a problem if we start calling it an organized intimidation campaign when they’re almost never organized,” said ProPublica election reporter Jessica Huseman. “They’re usually just upstart random yahoos with a megaphone.”
The flip side is that real intimidators might claim they can do what they want because they’re outside the electioneering limits. But, as Becker points out, the electioneering limits don’t matter in those cases because voter intimidation is illegal no matter where it happens. “People handing out flyers is annoying, but it’s not illegal,” he said. “Intimidation is illegal anywhere.”
What journalists should know and do: Reporters should know their state’s electioneering limits. They should also ask local officials about their plans for potential disruptions at the polls and whether poll workers know whom to call in such cases. Reporters might not necessarily report those plans to the public in advance – which could have the effect of alarming voters – but they will want to understand whom to call and who’s accountable if problems arise.
Journalists should also report these incidents in specific terms so the public won’t think the problems are more widespread than they are.
9: Know your state’s rules regarding poll watchers and poll observers.
How this comes up: Some experts have expressed concern that enthusiastic supporters of certain candidates will show up at the polls to “ensure” that the opposition is playing fair and counting ballots properly. The Trump campaign’s call for an “army” of poll watchers has sparked worries that some of his supporters could create conflict at voting stations and intimidate voters in the name of “poll watching.”
Potential misinformation: The fear in this case is that misinformation about widespread voter fraud will prompt activists to go to the polls intent on “finding” problems and gathering “evidence” of fraud, which then will reinforce their narrative that such poll watchers are needed. This vicious cycle, and the potential for media amplification, is outlined in a recent article from the Election Integrity Partnership.
What journalists should know and do: Reporters should know the poll-watching and poll-observing rules in their states so that they can quickly gauge whether any activity they see or hear about is outside the bounds of the law. The National Conference on State Legislatures has a good rundown of state laws. “There is not a state I’m aware of where you can walk in and say, ‘I’m here to watch,’ and then just sit there all day,” said ProPublica’s Huseman.
Reporters also need to avoid reporting on the poll-watching “army” pleas in ways that could amplify the false narrative of fraud on which the calls are based. Moreover, if unregistered poll watchers show up unannounced at voting places, reporters need to be clear with their audiences about their specific locations and what exactly is happening, so as to not cast it as a broader effort than it is.
10: Don’t conflate one-off registration problems with national ‘purge’ controversies.
How this comes up: Invariably, reporters will hear from voters who said they got to the polls and found out they were no longer listed as registered voters, or that the polling place had the wrong address or other incorrect information.
Potential misinformation: Frustrated voters who have this experience, or others who hear about these incidents, could post to social media or call reporters to claim that the voter rolls are outdated or that widespread voter purges have occurred.
What journalists should know and do: ProPublica’s Huseman explained that federal law contains a multi-step formula for how voters can become unregistered. Reporters should know how that law applies to their states. How each state applies the law is and can be the subject of controversy and litigation, which reporters should also know. Those are legitimate stories. But on Election Day, it’s important not to present individual anecdotes as indicative of widespread problems. That could create unnecessary fear and drive voters away.
Reporters should also provide audiences with a sense of what happens to voters whose registrations cannot be found. In many states, people can still cast a provisional ballot. Here is a National Conference on State Legislatures rundown on provisional ballot use.
11: Know what your state does with the ballots of people who die before Election Day.
How this comes up: Some states throw out ballots from people who voted early and then died before Election Day. After the election, these states might report the number of ballots they threw out from these people, so reporters might hear about “dead people voting.” After Michigan’s Aug. 4 primary, for example, the state reported that 846 absentee ballots had come from people who died before Election Day and were rejected.
Potential misinformation: The Michigan case is a good example of how those seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the voting process can reframe these ballots as fraudulent. After Michigan reported its 846 number, partisans including Breitbart News and allies of the president, including his son Donald Trump Jr., pushed a “dead voters” narrative suggesting that someone voted on behalf of the people who died.
What journalists should know and do: Reporters should know their states’ rules for what they do with the ballots of people who died before Election Day. Some states reject these ballots, but the majority do not, said The Democracy Fund’s Patrick. “In most states if you’re alive when you vote that ballot, it’ll count,” she said. If reporters know the law in advance, they can quickly explain it when these “dead voter” claims come up.
12: Know how to respond to claims that some people voted more than once.
How this comes up: It is against federal law to vote more than once in a given federal election, and most states have similar laws for non-federal elections. Instances of this type of voter fraud do happen, but they are vanishingly rare and often a result of confusion rather than deceit. Most states have robust systems in place to ensure voters can’t cast multiple ballots. Still, the president has in the past encouraged voters to test the system by casting a ballot by mail and then attempting to vote in person. Such attempts might occur, but often claims of double voting will be more innocuous.
Potential misinformation: You may see claims on social media that a voter (or voters) requested or cast a ballot by mail and then voted in person. ProPublica’s Huseman notes that “there could be about 100 innocent explanations” for why someone might have requested or cast a mail ballot and then showed up at the poll to vote in person: They lost their ballot, they decided to cast their vote in person, they’re physically delivering their ballot to a polling location, they messed up their ballot and decided not to cast it, it got lost in the mail, or they returned a ballot but weren’t sure it would be delivered in time to count. The precinct should be able to determine that the person requested a mail ballot and then offer them a provisional ballot to cast, or “spoil” their original mail ballot and give them a regular ballot to cast in person. If someone returns a mail ballot and then shows up in person to cast a provisional ballot, they may claim that they “voted twice,” though only one of those ballots will ultimately be counted.
What journalists should know and do: Election experts say that willful double voting almost never happens and that instances where a voter attempts to vote twice often result from confusion. Before Election Day, let voters know how they can securely return their mail ballot, what they can do if they’ve requested a mail ballot but would prefer to vote in person, or how they can track that their submitted mail ballot has been received. During early in-person voting and on Election Day, avoid amplifying unverified claims of double voting, as the claim is more likely than not to be a misunderstanding or a deliberate lie to undermine confidence in the election.
13: Handle reports of candidates declaring victory – or conceding – with care.
How this comes up: Candidates can be ahead at some point in the count on Election Day and enthusiastically declare victory. Their surrogates might whisper that the other side has called with congratulations. Reporters might see reports on Twitter or other social media platforms that a candidate has thrown in the towel. None of that means the results are final, but journalists often consider declarations of victory or concessions as news.
The misinformation potential: Those declarations don’t mean the race is over. Candidates can declare victory too early, and they can also concede too early, as Democrat Andrew Gillum did in Florida’s gubernatorial race in 2018. Gillum withdrew his concession hours after Florida’s secretary of state announced a recount. Republican Ron DeSantis ended up winning, but the race wasn’t decided until a week later. It’s an example of “why we should all be careful about early claims of victory and concessions,” said David Scott, the Associated Press’ deputy managing editor for operations at a recent AP/API event on the vote count this year and the effect of the pandemic on the election. Hoaxers can also post a false claim that a candidate conceded.
What journalists should know and do: Even if the claim is real, the candidate may be jumping the gun. “Use context. Use the facts. Report what’s taking place. If a candidate declares victory but AP hasn’t called the race and it’s still tight, you want to include that information in your coverage,” Scott said. “If a candidate concedes but it could go to a recount, you want to include that information in your coverage.” He also said it’s important to ask whether the candidate who has conceded is going to request a recount. Reporters should also know the recount laws in their states. And they should report to their audiences exactly how many votes separate the candidates to give a sense of scale.
Finally, said Levine from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, journalists should urge the public to rely on election officials for final results. “This not only helps ensure that the public understands where to get accurate final results from, but could also help counter the potential threat posed by attempts to spread disinformation regarding the results of the 2020 election,” he said.