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As Votebeat’s founding engagement editor, I want to help break down barriers and rebuild trust

Reliable journalism is key to a thriving democracy. And engagement is key to a strong newsroom.

Woman sitting at a desk wearing a T-shirt that reads “I love local news”

Votebeat engagement editor Lauren Aguirre

Lauren Aguirre / Votebeat

I still get chills thinking about the first time I voted. I grew up in Texas, watching with envy as my parents cast ballots in every election. I was even jealous of the fifth grade’s mock election in 2000 because, as a second grader, I wasn’t allowed to participate. So when the day finally came in 2012, and it was my turn to actually vote, I felt like I finally had made it.

When I stepped up to the voting machine to make my selections, I also crossed the threshold into true adulthood. I had power in American society. My voice mattered and my vote counted. And I knew millions of other Americans were doing the same thing at the same time. That feeling still returns to me every single time I vote, including in smaller state and local elections.

This is a feeling I want to help ensure every other American has the opportunity to experience. And I plan to do this as Votebeat’s founding engagement editor by working to connect the voting public with information they need about how elections are run, and how to make sure their voices are heard.

My deep belief in democracy ultimately led me to journalism. How are Americans supposed to make informed decisions without accurate and reliable information? How are voters supposed to know what’s going on if no one is around to investigate and get their questions answered? To me, fact-based and nuanced journalism in service of the public, especially local journalism, is inseparable from a strong democracy.

In an ideal world, journalists expose problems in our communities and then, the public would take notice and act on it. But in my experience, and especially in the age of the internet, at least half the battle is getting people to see and understand the reporting in the first place. When huge news surfaces on a national level — like the hanging chads and recounts in 2000 — the reaction can be direct and immediate. But most of the time, newsrooms need someone in an audience or engagement role to ensure the reporting reaches people who can do something about the problem at hand.

And another big part of reaching people involves trust. I do have deep faith in democracy, in journalism, and the voice of the people — but there are many, many real and valid reasons from history for people to distrust voting and the news media.

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American democracy as we know it today has really only been around for 52 years in terms of voter access. So many historical events lined up in order for me to walk into that Texas precinct for the first time in 2012 and cast my vote. Before 1970, for example, I would have needed to wait until I turned 21 to vote. Before 1920, I wouldn’t have been allowed to vote at all because of my gender. But those weren’t the only barriers that have existed for voting in this country. Before 1965, Black Texans were much more likely to have to pay a poll tax or take a literacy test in order to vote.

I’ve seen the hurdles that exist for voting and election information firsthand in multiple states. In Texas, I had to register to vote by mailing a form to the right office. And I wound up doing that twice because you not only need to be 18 on Election Day, but at least 17 ½ to register at all. I was just under that requirement the first time I tried to register to vote in Texas, forcing me to do it all over again.  When I moved to Arizona, I had to go to my county office in person to have my voter registration changed because my last name was misspelled due to a manual entry error. In both cases, someone without my time or dedication might have just given up. To go even further, someone who wasn’t a trained journalist might not have known where to look for the right information to be able to register at all.

Sometimes, the barrier is simply a lack of trust. In each state I’ve lived in, there has been a population of people who don’t believe their votes matter. Because of that, those people often don’t even try to participate in elections. Whether it was younger people, Black voters, Latinos, Natives, or any other underrepresented group, the same ideas persisted. They’ve consistently seen the people who represent them make decisions that do not help, or even actively hurt them. And they’ve seen this dynamic of being ignored or misunderstood played out again in news outlets. They’ve consistently been ignored or not valued. After a lifetime of this treatment, it’s hard to imagine American society working any other way.

This is reflected in turnout data. In 2020, voter turnout set records. That was celebrated as a win, and should be. But still, about one-third of eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot. And for the voters who did show up, there’s no telling whether they’ll keep turning out. A third of the country didn’t have their voice heard. A third of the country didn’t feel the chills that I do every time I vote.

This is why I wanted to be a journalist and why I want to work in audience engagement. My entire career has been spent working to break down barriers and help rebuild trust in local news. I’m looking forward to breaking down even more barriers at Votebeat.

The same way that quality journalism is a key but less-talked-about component for a thriving democracy, audience and engagement work is an important part of journalism that can be overlooked and underappreciated. That isn’t true at Votebeat, where engagement is built into everything we do.

As engagement editor, this is my specialty. My role is to be a conduit between the newsroom and the public and to stand in as the voice of our readers in the newsroom. Half of my focus is making our fact-based and heavily researched reporting accessible to, and digestible by, the general public. The other half is listening to readers, and bringing feedback to reporters so they can answer questions and debunk misinformation.

I quite literally can’t do my job without readers like you. If you’ve made it this far, please take a few minutes to fill out our new reader survey. Your answers will help give me insight into how you get information about voting and how the Votebeat newsroom can answer your questions and fill in the gaps.

Also be sure to stay connected with us: sign up for our newsletters and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Feel free to send emails to community@votebeat.org too.

I’m excited to hear from you and help connect you with vital information you need about voting in America.

Lauren Aguirre is Votebeat’s engagement editor, focused on connecting people to information they need about voting in their state. She is based in Philadelphia. Contact Lauren at laguirre@votebeat.org.

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