Investigating 'Whose Vote Counts' with the Voter Access Project | Columbia Journalism School
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Investigating 'Whose Vote Counts' with the Voter Access Project

For more than a year, postgraduate reporting fellows from the Columbia Journalism Investigations Voter Access Project have partnered with USA Today Network and PBS Frontline to investigate issues surrounding voter disenfranchisement in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, producing stories producing stories on the Wisconsin primary election, the potential impact of unprecedented rates of mail-in voting and most recently, an analysis of the Heritage Foundation's voter fraud database.
 
Their cumulative research and reporting also informs "Whose Vote Counts," the new documentary directed by Prof. June Cross and reported by Prof. Jelani Cobb from PBS Frontline, USA Today and Columbia Journalism Investigations premiering tonight (10/20) at 10/9c on PBS.
 
In this Q&A, Voter Access Project editor Stephen Stirling speaks with CJI Fellows Catharina Felke ('18 Lede)Jackie Hajdenberg ('20 M.S.) and Aseem Shukla ('20 M.S. Data) as well as project researcher Sarah Gelbard ('20 M.S.) for a look into how they investigated these stories during the pandemic and their insights on reporting on the election in a divisive political environment. Watch now or read the condensed transcript of highlights below.
Watch the full Q&A.

SS: We ended up through the course of this project publishing close to 10 stories. The first thing we did was an analysis of absentee ballot rejections. Obviously, voting by mail became a big issue in the country with the pandemic. It became highly politicized and there was a lot of rhetoric surrounding it. Can you talk about how the team approached figuring out what the potential was in 2020 in terms of absentee ballots?

CF: We were trying to see, given the pandemic and everything going on — the riots and voting by mail — how all of that would affect voters when they’re trying to cast an absentee ballot this year. So we relied on data from the [Election] Eve Survey, which is a survey done every two years by the federal agency for elections. 

The data is a bit messy to work with, but it was still the most complete picture we have about voting in a general election. So we stuck to the last general election in 2016 and took that data to see how voters would be affected if they were to vote by mail this year. 

There were some caveats because we were assuming that turnout would be the same, that the submission of absentee ballots and the rejections would be the same. But we stuck to that criteria and found out that more than one million voters would be likely to have their ballots rejected if the same rejection rate applies as 2016.

[Read: More than 1 million people could lose their vote on Nov. 3. That’s the best-case scenario]

We got some help from a Ph.D. researcher at Columbia University, which was also a great part of being part of CJI because you’re able to reach out to different experts from different fields at the University who can fact-check you. I feel like this election year is already super polarizing, so having a Ph.D. researcher and Mark Hansen at the J-School helped me a lot.

And we still reached out to the election clerks. That was basically our reporting: calling people, checking in, just really asking, “How are you doing, what are the challenges you're facing and do you feel like you’re getting enough support, either from your local government or the federal government?”

SS: How important do you feel talking to local officials and people on the ground was to getting a sense for what was happening?

AS: I think it was absolutely key. Without that, you wouldn’t have a story and you wouldn’t have an accurate story. 

That experience and those conversations really drove home the point that these officials generally are very competent, they really want what's best for their communities, they really want what’s best for the process. 

It paints a very, very stark contrast to what I think is very partisan rhetoric that exists among people who want to make political change. I think something that is difficult to realize today is how nonpartisan and the good faith a lot of these officials operate without the support that they probably deserve. 

Unfortunately, their work has become politicized in a way it has not been before. But the fact that they don’t get adequate funding or adequate resources is not new. If there’s any silver lining that comes out of this, it’s that the funding the election administration deserves might be brought to light a little bit more.

SS: A big part of this for us was working with local publishing partners. We spent a lot of time in Wisconsin in April and worked a lot with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as we were trying to make sense of this all. Was that experience informative for you in terms of thinking about where we should go with this project?

CF: Definitely. When we were covering this election in early April, it kind of gave me a forecast into what we would be dealing with in the months to come because Wisconsin decided to go through with this election during the pandemic. The number of cases was still rising, and nonetheless, they decided to do it, so it was great to have the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a partner. Lizzie [Mulvey, also a 2019-2020 CJI Fellow,] and I enjoyed working with them because they were just so good at what they were doing, and as the others have pointed out, it’s key to have partners on the ground who know their communities. That election in April was so weird, but also so telling about what we’d be dealing with.

SS: One of the other things that we placed a lot of focus on and obviously has become a highly politicized issue was voter fraud. We looked into the Heritage Foundation, which is a conservative think tank that has become sort of an icon in terms of voter fraud. They have a database of what I believe are 1298 cases of voter fraud. What did you find when you dug into that database?

JH: My main takeaway from all of this is that as a conservative talking point the Heritage Foundation’s voter fraud database just isn’t good evidence for that. 

As we were looking through this, we found that there were a lot of errors about the categorization, whether an absentee ballot was used, or it was errors that it had to do with registration, or it was elected officials or people running for office...actually doing things that were problematic, which is not always the same as voter fraud. What we found was basically that all of these things get conflated with each other. 

There have already been a lot of articles that suggest that even if you took the Heritage Foundation’s database as all the evidence of voter fraud, it’s still already extremely rare. Add to that that a lot of these cases just aren’t what they seem to be.

We found things like a mother who would cast a ballot for her son who was a college student. He had heard rumors that he wouldn’t be able to vote on campus, so he asked his mom to cast a ballot for him. But then he voted in-person and he forgot to tell his mom that he voted in-person. It was truly an accident. 

Some of them were extremely wacky. Someone was listed as fraudulent use of absentee ballots, and it was a murder-for-hire case. That’s not exactly the same thing.

[Read: We analyzed a conservative foundation's catalog of absentee ballot fraud: It's not a 2020 election threat]

SS: Was it difficult to track down information?

SG: Sometimes I was frustrated by how difficult it seemed to track certain things down. At other times, I was really surprised by what I found. I found one case in the Heritage database records that was from 1948 — as Jackie said, [the database contains] all sorts of different things that are conflated and not systematically organized. People who made innocent mistakes labeled as fraudsters: Someone helping elderly voters fill out absentee ballots and forgetting to sign her name. Things like change of address. And the fact that all of this is lumped together and is cited all over the place and used to make inferences about voting issues today was really worrisome, and I’m really glad that we got to dig into that. 

SS: Another thing that we were part of supporting was the PBS Frontline documentary “Whose Vote Counts.” It features our Columbia colleague Jelani Cobb who is a historian. Do you think it’s important to have someone who can speak to the history of any given [voting] issue?

JH: Absolutely. We know even just in the context of Covid how frequently rules surrounding elections and how ballots can be cast are changed, so of course having historical context is going to be important.

[Watch: “Whose Vote Counts” from PBS Frontline]

AS: Out of context, a lot of voting rules don’t make a lot of sense, and it’s also not easy to see why they might be good or bad for a particular situation. For example, when you have voter ID laws that say you need to present valid ID — to the untrained observer, somebody who doesn’t know the history of this sort of thing, it doesn’t necessarily strike you as a particularly onerous requirement. But then you realize that this thing has a history of being implemented in such a way that people who have the least access to these kinds of documents are not the ones that tend to vote in a way that favors the party that passes these requirements. So I think that having the context for who is likely to vote in a particular way or who is passing a certain type of law is very important to understanding the context in which these laws operate.

The rules that exist don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist for a particular reason. The history going all the way back to Jim Crow is very important for understanding how these things work.

SS: Something we’ve focused on a lot was staying grounded in the data we had. There is just so much rhetoric around every aspect of what we’re doing. Is it ever challenging to separate fact from fiction?

CF: For me, it was fairly doable. I feel like talking to election officials across the country helps re-check your perspectives and your approach and see how people on the ground are actually doing this and what kind of steps they take during the voting process. I feel like talking to experts...just drawing from that knowledge of people who have been covering this for years helped me make sure I can actually differentiate between some partisan rhetoric and the facts.

Obviously, just covering this beat this year is especially polarizing. Whatever you do there will always be someone who is not okay with that. And this goes across all parties. But I think this is also just part of our job. We’re just trying to educate the public and make sure that they have all the information they need to make an informed decision, especially when it comes to voting.

SS: Do you have any advice for reporting remotely?

AS: As someone who has done most of his reporting remotely at this point, I would say it’s not scary. I think that a lot of what you learn about source-building and trying to get to the people that you want to get to is going to be the same whether it’s remote or whether it’s in-person. A lot of the conversations, especially with people who aren’t in a place where you can go and get a coffee, are at least going to initiate remotely. 

A lot of it has to do with knowing how the source you’re trying to get in touch with is likely to be reachable. For example, if you’re trying to talk to an academic, they don’t always appreciate it when you call their direct line at the university. If you’re calling an election clerk that has a number listed, that’s a really good way to get in touch with them, because that’s what [the line] there for. Think about who you’re trying to reach, how you’re trying to reach them. Are you going to have a similar success DMing them on Twitter or texting them or something like that?

In many ways, doing it remotely is a little easier because there are a lot of ways you can set things up so that you can record a conversation and the sound quality is reasonably good for you to be able to use it later on. 

CF: I think to a certain extent, Covid has actually helped in terms of reaching out to people, because every one of us has been going through this. That was always a good icebreaker.