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'The mechanics of voting may be critical'

DISCUSSIONS | May 23, 2006

Mark Seibel

Mark Seibel, 1992 Nieman; managing editor/International, Knight Ridder Washington bureau.

Of course, questions about political coverage always revolve around how to cover the candidates, what they stand for, who they are and, perhaps most importantly, who's backing them, either with money or manpower. Those are all fruitful areas to be covered. About that, I would add only that reporters shouldn't be satisified to merely quote what people say they stand for, but to look for evidence that the candidates really support what they say they support and are who they say they are.

What political coverage routinely neglects, however, is how people actually vote and how those votes are counted. As we learned in Florida in 2000 and saw again in Ohio in 2004, the mechanics of voting may be as critical to the result as the beliefs of the people casting those votes. Journalists need to cover the voting system, with an eye toward making sure voters are able to get to the polls, cast a legal ballot and count on that ballot being tallied accurately. If that part of the system fails, then efforts to cover candidates and their positions are wasted.

Here are practical stories to look at:

  • How does a voter in my (state, county, city) cast a ballot? Have there been any documented problems with this system, either here or elsewhere? How did the system work last time? Has required maintenance been performed on the voting equipment since it was last used? Has balloting equipment been assigned to precincts in adequate amounts for turnout expectations? Are there some high turnout areas that have fewer ballot machines than they need?
  • Where are voters expected to cast ballots? Have any of the polling stations been moved? Have there been any changes to the way precincts have been drawn so that people are in new precincts? (If you have zoned local sections, you should cover this in detail so people know where to vote and how to find out.)  When are new voter registration cards, with precinct information, due to arrive at voters' homes? Remind voters to be looking for them.
  • Are there issues involving absentee ballots that need to be addressed? Who requests absentee ballots? Are there an unusual number of absentee ballots being requested for or being returned from a single address? Who is marking ballots for elderly at nursing homes, for example?
  • What problems should voters anticipate when they arrive at their polling station? What identification will they be asked for? What should they do if their name is not on the voter roll? What are their rights if they make a mistake marking a ballot?
  • What are the obligations of officials to count ballots by hand if they could not be read by machine? Do they meet those obligations? What if an electronic balloting machine malfunctions? Can those votes be salvaged?

Many of these topics have a how-to feel that may not excite your average political reporter. But making sure voters know how to cast ballots, that their ballots are properly handled and counted accurately and that steps are in place to correct problems is fundamental to the political process and ought to be part of any comprehensive political coverage plan.

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