Wisconsin’s election on April 7 was a test of how a democracy functions in a pandemic.
Democracy held on, but at a price. The election offered a window into the logistical challenges of trying to forge ahead with voting at a time of social distancing, and it was a closely watched battleground in the larger war over voting rights.
It also holds lessons for journalists, who in Wisconsin had to report on plans that were changing by the hour, then consider how much risk they were willing to take to their own health and safety to cover the voting.
Two legal battles in state and federal court pitted Democratic Gov. Tony Evers against Republican legislators. In both cases, the governor lost, requiring the state to hold the vote as scheduled on April 7 and to count the absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day.
These battles were fought in the last few days and hours before the election, creating uncertainty and chaos both for people who wanted to vote by absentee ballot and for the local elections officials who were trying to keep up with the on-again-off-again scheduling.
And as the election neared, it became clear that the story was not so much about the outcome of these races — although the state Supreme Court race was hotly contested — but about the mechanics of the election itself.
“Most of the interest was about the how – how are we going to vote, how is this election going to happen, and less about who was involved,” said Rachel Piper, the digital news director for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In the end, turnout was unexpectedly high. People donned masks and stood in line, in some cases risking their health. Many were angry. “Your vote or your life” and similar phrases were used to describe the choice Wisconsinites were forced to face.
API’s Trusted Elections Network, a collaboration of journalists and election experts who are communicating throughout 2020 about misinformation and other threats to election integrity, recently held a conversation to discuss what happened in Wisconsin. Here are some of the lessons we drew from that conversation.
1. Partisan fighting ahead of the vote set the stage for gridlock.
The fact that the two parties in Wisconsin were fighting over the mechanics of the election right up until the day before the voting started was an indication that the fight would probably enter a second “phase” after the actual balloting, said Ned Foley, director of the election law center at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.
The parties in Wisconsin had been at odds over election mechanics for years, including litigation over the state’s voter identification laws, so the gears were already primed for a struggle. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it exacerbated friction between the parties and they were unable to act in the public interest, Foley said.
Journalists and others should not dismiss these pre-Election Day fights as mere partisan squabbling. They are an indication that partisanship has taken root in a state and that challenges to the very legitimacy of an election are likely, especially if the results are close or within what election lawyers called the “margin of litigation,” Foley said.
This risk is particularly acute in states like Wisconsin where the government is divided and the margins are likely to be close. Foley cited Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as states where the same kinds of battles can be expected this fall.
“The real risk is that partisan division could cause months-long gridlock and disable states from adopting changes that might be necessary, whether we’re talking in-person voting on Nov. 3 or fixing the rules for absentee voting,” he said.
2. The absentee and mail-in voting systems were not up to the task.
The images from Wisconsin on April 7 – including a Journal Sentinel intern’s iconic photograph of a voter with a sign that read, “THIS IS RIDICULOUS” – showed frustrated voters in long lines at the polls.
But the alternative – mail-in or absentee voting – also proved problematic. In fact, the woman in that photo and many other voters in those lines showed up at polls precisely because the vote-by-mail system had failed them.
Wisconsin wasn’t ready for the number of requests elections officials received for absentee and mail-in ballots in light of COVID-19. Computer systems crashed. People received empty envelopes or sometimes nothing at all. The Journal Sentinel, working with PBS’s Frontline and Columbia Journalism Investigations, detailed how the state’s election infrastructure was overwhelmed by demand.
The problems outlined in the investigation could serve as a roadmap for journalists in other states that haven’t yet held their primaries, or for the Nov. 3 general election, when turnout is expected to be far greater.
“Some of these computer systems they’re using are just so antiquated,” said Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Investigations Editor Sam Roe, who managed the election problems story. “I think we’re going to see what we saw on April 7 just magnified come November.”
3. Problems hit polling stations harder in poor communities and communities of color. But mail-in voting may not help.
Underlying much of the struggle over the election – and Wisconsin’s voting laws in general – was the concern that poor and minority voters face heightened barriers to voting.
The concern of voting-rights groups that forcing people to vote in person would result in greater burdens for these communities to vote were justified. In Milwaukee, where seven in 10 of Wisconsin’s Black voters live, the number of polling stations fell from 180 to five. The city was the site of the longest lines at the polls.
A logical remedy would be the broad use and encouragement of mail-in ballots. But research from the 2018 midterms in Wisconsin showed that poor people and racial and ethnic minorities – who tend to have longer commutes to voting stations and wait in longer lines once they get there — did not tend to benefit from early and absentee voting, said Michael W. Wagner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was part of the team that did the research.
In other words, the people who take advantage of the very policy remedy under discussion in light of COVID-19 would be people who face lower barriers to voting in the first place, he said.
For journalists, this experience could point to a potential story. In states like Wisconsin, where minorities are less likely to vote absentee, why is that the case? Do they face barriers? Do they distrust the mail-in system? What is the experience of people of color when it comes to alternatives to in-person voting?
4. Local election clerks are the linchpins of the system.
Elections are administered by local governments’ election clerks, who inform and assist voters and administer the actual polling. Whether they work for large cities or tiny townships, the clerks serve on the front lines of elections, ensuring the integrity of the process. In light of the spread of the coronavirus, experts in fair elections have encouraged journalists to make close connections with their local clerks – and vice versa – so that the public can get accurate information quickly amid changing rules. In March, ProPublica’s Electionland project offered similar insights, including some questions journalists can pose to their local election clerks.
Wisconsin’s experience suggests that having a good relationship with election clerks can help journalists in three ways.
- The clerks are a solid source of information about unexpected changes to the rules and logistics of voting, and they can be an early-warning indicator that changes are not being communicated widely or clearly enough, or that the system is breaking down.
“You’d talk to the talking heads, and they say everything is being communicated great,” said the Journal Sentinel’s Piper. “Then you’d talk to a clerk, and they’d say we don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow.”
- The clerks can explain how the system is supposed to work, so that journalists can see better when it’s not. Wisconsin Watch Managing Editor Dee J. Hall said she listened in on a webinar that state elections officials held with local clerks in advance of a May 12 special election to fill a recently vacated congressional seat.
It was helpful, she said, “just hearing their questions. What are they worried about? What are the things they don’t know, even though they need to know in the next week and a half?”
- The clerks can help humanize what is otherwise a dry story about election law, ballots and postmarks. Some of them operate in big urban areas, but others are in tiny places with only a few hundred voters, and some work out of their homes.
The Journal Sentinel’s Roe said the staff has been thinking about ways to bring drama to the story. The notion of town clerks “working out of their kitchens with a feather quill” provides a potentially rich angle, he said.
5. It’s important to understand postmarks, and how the postal service works.
In Wisconsin, an election clerk near Milwaukee tried to mail absentee ballots to voters, only to have the post office return them in bulk to the village, with no explanation. Three tubs of absentee ballots bound for Appleton and Oshkosh were discovered sitting in a mail processing center in Milwaukee. Some clerks received absentee ballots that didn’t have postmarks.
Journalists will be better able to cover these stories if they know how the mail works. The role of postmarks, in particular, is important. The postmark has been “fetishized” as a way of establishing the date of mailing because postmark requirements are in election laws, said Nathaniel Persily, an elections expert who is a law professor and co-director of the Cyber Policy Center at Stanford University. But not all mail is postmarked, which creates problems.
Rules for election mail require that it be postmarked, but some localities used sorting systems that didn’t generate postmarks, he said.
“This is really in-the-weeds stuff, but it actually could make a difference, as we think about coverage of this as we go to November,” he said. “We need the election administrators to understand – and we need the media to understand – that a postmark is not a postmark is not a postmark, and that there are different ways to judge when certain types of mail has entered the system.”
On top of the postmark issue is the increasing politicization of the postal service, as the service is losing money due to the coronavirus and needs a bailout. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has appointed a Republican donor as postmaster general just as states are looking at expanding their vote-by-mail programs, which Trump opposes.
The postal service’s financial problems, the need for a bailout and the service’s role in the election – local officials use it to mail absentee ballots, polling station information and voter cards, among other things – are all converging, making it critical for journalists to understand how the service works.
6. Crowd-sourcing and monitoring can help reporting during a pandemic.
At a time of mass chaos, when the public is confused, news organizations can best help their audiences by asking them what they need – and what they’re seeing.
At the Journal Sentinel, the social media editor posted a tweet asking people to get in touch if they had problems getting an absentee ballot. The newsroom got 600 responses, indicating the breadth of the problem and feeding its investigation into the absentee ballot crisis.
To find out what residents were searching for online, the editors watched Google Trends in Wisconsin, also confirming that people were seeking information about absentee ballots. Journalists can also find closer connections to their communities through tools such as Groundsource, Reach or Subtext, which help ask people in communities what questions they want answered.
At Wisconsin Watch, Hall said, staffers kept an eye on social media feeds and used social media monitoring tools like Crowdtangle to see what people were talking about.
7. Remote work made election reporting harder – but in some ways easier.
Wisconsin reporters covering voting lines kept their distance and wore masks. Hall said reporters were instructed to conduct interviews from a distance, not to go into anyone’s home and to keep themselves safe, above all.
Some very good journalism, though, was done without a physical presence and may even be aided by the fact that reporters are not dispersed around the city on assignment.
The Journal Sentinel’s investigative piece on the absentee ballot crisis was done in a matter of hours and, remarkably, none of the people who worked on it were actually in Milwaukee. The piece was produced with journalists working in Sarasota, Fla., New York City and Chicago. As the editor on the project, Roe saw a certain advantage to the fact that reporters and editors were in their homes and available when needed.
“I think before the pandemic, we’d still be talking, we’d still be setting up meetings,” he said. “We’re all available now at home, and so you can get together at a moment’s notice and make really quick decisions. So maybe that’s something good that’s going to come out of this – faster, quicker, more nimble investigations.”
8. COVID-19 misinformation and election misinformation are converging.
Misinformation about coronavirus and the election are starting to come together, creating a toxic combination aimed at stoking division among voters.
The misleading use of infection rates is something to watch. Wisconsin Watch commissioned a piece from Howard Hardee, a local reporter who is also the Wisconsin trainer for First Draft, a non-profit organization that fights disinformation, about how a conservative group was using early and now outdated COVID-19 projections from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to argue that Gov. Evers’ reaction to the pandemic was overblown.
Fast-changing stories, and the confusion that comes with them, are often exploited by partisans and misinformers to wreak further havoc and divide the electorate. They are also moments when journalists are most vulnerable to manipulation.
As such, rapid changes about voting rules and absentee ballots create an environment friendly to the spread of misinformation. In 2016, falsehoods circulated on social media about actual voting dates. In another example, a hoaxer tweeted that he loved working in the Columbus, Ohio, post office and ripping up the ballots of people voting for Trump.
9. It’s OK – even important – to report uncertainty.
When news is moving fast – with directions to voters about how and when to vote changing, for example – it is important to keep readers informed of the latest updates, and also to be honest about what you don’t know. Readers who come to a news site or station in search of answers are better off hearing that things are still in flux than getting nothing at all.
In Wisconsin, the rapidly changing circumstances posed just such a challenge, said the Journal Sentinel’s Piper.
“If there was a question outstanding, we would put that almost as the headline,” she said. “Like we had a story about why Milwaukee only had five polling places, when other smaller places had many, many more. We said, ‘Here’s what we know so far. Here’s what we don’t know. Here’s what still we’re waiting to get answers back on.’”
Another example involved the timing of the release of results. Because of the number of absentee ballots, election officials had cautioned that the results would not come on election night. But even after those warnings, the editors noticed in Google Trends that people were searching for results. “And so we put together a piece that said you will not get election results until next Monday, here’s why,” Piper said.
The paper’s practices that day were consistent with the suggestion from Trusting News, an organization affiliated with API that helps newsrooms build audience trust, that news organizations be open with their audiences that information about the COVID-19 pandemic is changing quickly.
“If we make it clear that information or recommendations in the article could change, then we may be able to eliminate some complaints and confusion,” Lynn Walsh wrote in a recent “Trust Tips” newsletter. “More importantly, we are helping our users be better news consumers.”
Journalists or others who have questions about API’s Trusted Elections Network should get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org