One of my clearest memories from childhood — and I’m not making this up — is the morning after the 2000 election. I was finally old enough that a presidential election meant something to me, and I sprung out of the bottom bunk in the room I shared with my sister and asked my mother who’d won. “We don’t know,” she said, matter-of-factly.
This, reader, blew my mind.
It had never occurred to me — admittedly, I was a child — that an election didn’t always conclude with a clear answer. It was so clearly a zero-sum game that weeks before, my younger brother had drawn a picture of two dinosaurs that he’d labeled “Bush” and “Gore,” locked in a battle to the death. I was already fascinated with politics and government, and the indecisiveness of 2000 locked it in. I obsessed over the news for weeks, trying to wrap my brain around a system that I realized now was far less concrete than it had seemed to me before.
I can’t remember not wanting to be deeply enmeshed in this stuff, and I can’t remember not being fascinated with the people who make decisions and how they got to where they are. And while the path to turning that fascination into my career took a series of weird detours and accidental twists, it’s become clear to me that the ultimate building block of government is voting and the people who make it go.
I started adulthood as a high school debate coach and history teacher in Newark, New Jersey. I still remember teaching my debaters about the Electoral College. “So, democracy is an illusion?” one girl asked me. I was 22, and had no meaningful response. It seemed fitting, then, that my first “real job” in journalism was helping ProPublica run Electionland just a few years later — a massive project that shared data with hundreds of local newsrooms about problems at the polls during federal election cycles.
I hadn’t intended to cover election administration. ProPublica hired me after graduate school to cover healthcare and do data analysis on pharmaceutical companies. The internship was seven weeks, then got extended in 2016, but, as it happened, the next opening was in Electionland. And I found myself, unsuspectingly, covering voting during the height of Trump’s campaign, which had taken to calling the entire system “rigged.” I stayed with it, helping run Electionland in 2018 and 2020 during the presidency that most clearly sought to influence election administration. And so, here I am, three federal election cycles and dozens of local elections later, helping build a newsroom about all of that.
When I first started covering this beat, people wanted to know what I meant by “election administration.” “Like, campaigns?” people would ask me at parties. Now, people want to discuss Dominion conspiracy theories and the prevalence of dead voters on the rolls. They want to discuss Stacey Abrams, and whether the new Georgia voting law truly will disenfranchise voters.
It’s been fascinating to watch the focus on voting intensify, in ways that are, in equal parts, inspirational and horrifying. On one hand, it’s amazing to see elections — which are critical to the health of our democracy and have been serially ignored — getting the attention they deserve. On the other hand, there has been a disproportionate rise in the amount of misinformation on the topic, much of it fueled by a candidate who spread lies about elections for months before meaningfully resisting the transfer of power — a series of affronts unprecedented in American history.
Given this unlikely confluence of events, it’s a particularly auspicious time to start a newsroom that covers voting and elections. There is a clear and indisputable hole in most Americans’ understanding of election administration, and it is one the media has so far not been able, or in some cases not bothered, to fill. And this — as the events of 2020 and 2021 demonstrate for us clearly — has been to our collective detriment.
Since I started covering voting in the runup to 2016, I have met hundreds of county, city, and township election administrators who have helped convince me that local journalism has the power to inform and empower voters to cast ballots for the candidates of their choice. We journalists should not only feel responsible for explaining the platforms of the candidates but also the system that allows voters to pick the one they want: How to cast a ballot, how that ballot is counted, the security measures in place to safeguard the process, and the audits and checks to ensure the election was appropriately administered.
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I chose to come to Votebeat because I believe strongly in the power of local news. Votebeat is not a national newsroom — we are a collection of local newsrooms with reporters deeply rooted in the states they cover. Given the diffuse nature of American elections, this is among the few ways to cover voting well. And crucially, I believe that this newsroom has — despite the absolute ravaging of newsrooms across the country — landed on a sustainable and replicable model for growth. This is not a short-term Band-aid to patch up the holes in local news. This is a permanent addition to the local news ecosystem, which I am confident will help boost voter engagement and understanding of the process.
If any beat deserves intensive, clear focus, it is voting. This is distinct from the multiple newsrooms that have launched “democracy” beats — a description that’s more of an idea than a narrow focus, which might encompass anything from campaign finance to racist extremism. Instead, Votebeat aims to take a specific look at election administration, voting access, and those who wield control over both. And we hope to help other newsrooms do the same, both by offering our content for free to republish and by partnering with newsrooms who need help covering this thorny, convoluted topic.
I’m proud to be helping shape this newsroom from Texas, where I was born and raised and have returned as an adult. There is a tremendous amount of disruption in Texas’s voting landscape right now, and as it hurtles toward swing-state status, it has become apparent that voting in Texas deserves its own reporter. Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, likewise, deserve a dedicated reporter on voting and elections. We see these four states as representative of so many crucial trends in democracy, both positive and negative. I came back to Texas in order to help this newsroom tell these stories, and we’ve selected reporters with the same drive to cover access to the vote in their own states. We’re excited to get started.
Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at firstname.lastname@example.org.