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Democracy is in the details. My job is to make them clearer for Wisconsin voters.

It’s worth focusing on election administration, because that’s where trust in our system can be built, or lost.

A man with short dark hair, wearing black glasses and a blue dress shirt poses for a portrait in front of a tan wall.
Votebeat Wisconsin reporter Alex Shur poses for a portrait on June 27, 2024. "I’ve been allowed more freedom than almost all of my ancestors," Shur writes. "But I’ve tried never to lose sight of the fact that our democracy’s existence and stability aren’t guarantees." (Image courtesy of Kayla Huynh)

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S. Sign up for Votebeat Wisconsin’s free newsletter here.

It was March 2022, and Wisconsin’s most powerful lawmaker was meeting behind closed doors at the state Capitol with people who were asking him to decertify the state’s 2020 election results.

I was sitting on the floor outside those doors, two months into my new state government reporting job, and trying to write about the meeting on deadline. It was uncomfortable. Not the floor — well, OK, the floor, too.

But it was uncomfortable because an election conspiracy theorist outside those doors was talking to me, making far-reaching claims, and at that point I didn’t know enough about the safeguards built into Wisconsin’s election system to say for sure that his claims were baseless.

I knew they probably were. I knew about the recounts, court reviews, and audits that confirmed the state’s 2020 election results. I knew that claims similar to this man’s had been disproven over and over. But still, I didn’t know enough to refute them myself.

The interaction didn’t seem important. It didn’t figure in any story I was writing that day or any follow-up coverage. Still, I’ve always remembered it. It was a wake-up call for me to recognize that many Wisconsin residents spent a lot of time thinking about elections but that some of those folks didn’t have their facts right. As a reporter, I knew I was supposed to be an authority on the topic, but I understood only the politics of election administration, not the finer details. And in some instances, like that one, the details mattered a lot more.

Mastering the details of Wisconsin elections takes time, and I hadn’t had much of that by March 2022.

I moved to Wisconsin only in late 2021 after working for a newspaper in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I focused on investigative reporting on the criminal justice system. There, I wrote about a man sent to jail for voting because he was unaware of a Wyoming law that prohibits people with repeat felony convictions from voting, unless they get a governor’s pardon. I also covered the inequalities in mental health care for people caught up in the criminal justice system.

Before that, I wasn’t reporting at all. I lived in Guatemala for two years, volunteering in the Peace Corps and for a nonprofit.

The truth is, the inner workings of elections weren’t on my mind for most of my life. But the broader values of free and fair elections and democracy were never lost on me — or my ancestors, who came to know the worth of those values by not having had them in Soviet Russia.

With one-party rule under the Communists, the election results there were predetermined. A single candidate would appear on the ballot, yet turnout for these non-contests neared 100%.

Free and fair elections? Don’t think so. My ancestors could mark a ballot, but their votes had no meaning.

Other opportunities weren’t easy for my family to come by, either. My grandpa’s dreams of a better job or a good law school education were quashed by the label on his internal passport identifying him as Jewish. His hope of a freer life for my Russian-born mother was hobbled for some time by restrictive emigration policies for Jews.

In the early 1970s, my mom’s family made their way out as refugees through Western Europe to Canada, and my parents later moved to the United States, where I was born.

It’s probably easier to embrace the concept of freedom and opportunity when you at some point don’t have it. I certainly have had plenty of fantastic opportunities in my life. I’ve been allowed more freedom than almost all of my ancestors.

But I’ve tried never to lose sight of the fact that our democracy’s existence and stability aren’t guarantees — they’re privileges. It takes work to make it function. And that work often lies in the details, sometimes deep down in the weeds of election administration. For my little part, I think it’s worth focusing on election administration details, because that’s where trust in our system can be built, or lost.

Years after that interaction at the Capitol, there’s still distrust in elections across Wisconsin, often rooted in misinformation and conspiracy theories. Municipal clerks and other election officials deal with this every day.

They’re also dealing with much more. Each year, there are several new lawsuits in Wisconsin over election laws and rules. There are shortcomings in election processes and accessibility that need to be addressed. And there’s the constant hard work to make sure Wisconsin’s decentralized election system — comprising 72 county clerks and about 1,850 municipal clerks — functions reliably.

My goal at Votebeat is to provide a deep, clear-eyed view of all these issues. I’m not here to glorify all the election happenings in Wisconsin, nor am I here to catastrophize. Votebeat excels in its elections reporting because its reporters provide a critical, dispassionate, and nonpartisan look at election administration — both its strengths and weaknesses.

If I do my job right, I’ll do exactly that. I’ll also answer your questions along the way. And hopefully together, we can help Wisconsin’s election system become a little easier to understand, and perform a little better for the voters who rely on it.

Alexander Shur is a reporter for Votebeat based in Wisconsin. Contact Alexander at ashur@votebeat.org.

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