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Why we think spotlighting flaws in elections actually helps increase voter confidence

From Arizona to Pennsylvania, Votebeat’s coverage has led to reforms that make democracy function better.

A person with long blonde hair and wearing a blue shirt holds a yellow ballot envelope with stacks of yellow envelopes on the table in the background.
Workers sort mail-in ballots on Nov. 7, 2023, at Northampton County Courthouse in Easton, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for Spotlight PA)

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S. A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s free weekly newsletter. Sign up to get future editions, including the latest reporting from Votebeat bureaus and curated news from other publications, delivered to your inbox every Saturday.

Today, I want to explain something about Votebeat’s journalism, especially in light of a great story we published.

At Votebeat, we’re reporting the nuanced truth about elections and voting at a time of crisis in America. We aim to help people understand how our democracy works so they can participate in strengthening it.

Why am I telling you this? Because our mission includes telling the public about election mistakes and problems when they do crop up. Transparency and openness about mistakes should shore up voters’ faith in the system, not undercut it.

We all know that democracy is under pressure. Election officials have repeatedly assured the public that our elections are safe and secure, and a parade of court cases, recounts, and audits have affirmed that. But polls have repeatedly found that lies and conspiracy theories are eroding the trust many Americans have in elections.

Of course, elections are also complicated events involving complex logistics, thousands of workers, and millions of voters spread over a patchwork of jurisdictions, and mistakes happen. In such cases, our job is to figure out and explain what went wrong. We hope that our journalism can prevent the next election meltdown.

At Votebeat, we are sometimes asked if spotlighting such mistakes through our coverage — such as the deeply reported investigation into flawed practices in Northampton County that Votebeat Pennsylvania reporter Carter Walker published this month — undermines faith in elections.

We actually believe the opposite — that being upfront about mistakes, and reporting on how and why they happened, will increase voter confidence.

When problems with voting machines first surfaced in Northampton County, in eastern Pennsylvania, last November, local election officials said the issue was a simple programming error. What they didn’t say: Their process for testing voting machines before use, known as logic and accuracy testing, was flawed in ways that went far beyond a simple programming error, and much of their documentation was incomplete or missing.

The only reason the public knows this is that Walker spent nearly 14 hours over six days going through Northampton County’s logic and accuracy testing documentation from October 2023. He wanted to understand what happened, and whether the mistakes that affected voters were preventable. What he found was that the paperwork was a mess, with inspection checklists filled out incorrectly and several dozen test ballots nowhere to be found. The problems with the machines’ programming might have been caught before the election if the county had better processes in place.

In response to Walker’s findings, Northampton election officials are changing the way they do things. “We definitely have to get better on a lot of the things we did,” Northampton Elections Director Christopher Commini told Walker. “These are major changes that need to be done.” And state lawmakers are looking into legislation to make sure other counties have good processes in place.

Votebeat’s journalism has prompted official action to improve elections elsewhere, too. For example, in Pinal County, Arizona, a rapidly growing area outside Phoenix, reporter Jen Fifield found that even though election staff had documented clear errors during and after tabulating ballots, they didn’t fix them or inform the public before certifying the 2022 election. Her work sparked calls for change and outraged editorials; the county has new personnel in place and has made other changes.

Of course, readers choose what to take from our work. One reader from California, Colin Clements, emailed Fifield after a co-worker sent him an article of hers about problems in Maricopa County last year. According to the co-worker, Clements said, that article and others about issues with voting around the country suggested a coordinated effort to rig the election — a contention the article doesn’t support at all.

Conspiracy theorists, in other words, won’t necessarily draw the right conclusions from our work. But people like Clements don’t want us to quit. If nobody explained what went wrong, Clements told me in a separate conversation, “someone like me would say, ‘Why isn’t anyone explaining what happened?’ Explaining what happened and researching what happened satisfies people like me, but it doesn’t matter what you do for conspiracy theorists.”

“Your critical role,” he added, “is to provide information for those in the middle of the spectrum that seek to understand.”

We’re going to keep doing that.

Carrie Levine is Votebeat’s managing editor and is based in Washington, D.C. She edits and frequently writes Votebeat’s national newsletter. Contact Carrie at clevine@votebeat.org.


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