You Think the Media is There to Inform your Voters? Think again.
Election Administration and the News Media
Election Directors Conference
December 15, 2008
Presentation by Gerry F. Cohen
Director of Bill Drafting, North Carolina General Assembly
What will the media do for election administrators? If the 2008 general election is any
indication, precious little. I hope this presentation gets you off to a good start with an amusing but
at the same time frustrating tale of new media technology gone haywire, where the attempts of
the designer to inform the reader does not match up with the needs of the user.
What does the administrator need the voter to know? Perhaps some of the following
1) Am I registered to vote at my current address? Why does that matter?
2) How do I register to vote?
3) Where are early voting locations?
4) Where is my election day voting place?
5) How do I cast my ballot?
6) What if something goes wrong?
How does the voter get any of this information? The election administrator might hope that
print and broadcast media will help. Nearly a million voters registered in North Carolina in 2008,
most likely casting their first ballot in this state. Broadcast media is unlikely to be able to carry a
detailed level of information, but print media and its online websites ought to be able to help out,
right? The State Board of Elections 2008 General Election Voter Guide did contain a good gloss
of how to find the information.
The General Assembly has set out some minimal requirements for legal notice of an
election. G.S. 163-33(8) provides that each county board of elections shall:
" …give notice at least 20 days prior to the date on which the registration books or
records are closed that there will be a primary, general or special election, the date on
which it will be held, and the hours the voting places will be open for voting in that
election. The notice also shall describe the nature and type of election, and the issues, if
any, to be submitted to the voters at that election. Notice shall be given by advertisement
at least once weekly during the 20-day period in a newspaper having general circulation
in the county and by posting a copy of the notice at the courthouse door. Notice may
additionally be made on a radio or television station or both, but such notice shall be in
addition to the newspaper and other required notice."
We know that few read these legal notices, and most counties publish the bare minimum as
a classified legal notice, and we know that the classifieds are not likely the most read part of the
newspaper. I did notice this year that the Orange County Board of Elections ran display
advertising, in large type, setting out all the early voting locations and times. Bravo!
A recent column from the News & Observer noted that
"A study by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism found that
57 percent of the coverage was about the horse race, while 13 percent examined the
issues. Unless there is a resurgence of high-mindedness across the nation, future
campaigns will probably offer more and more about less and less … The 2008 election,
… provided our first glimpse of a dawning political age in which the traditional role of
the mainstream media is supplanted by broad forces seeking to expand and constrict the
amount and quality of information available to voters."
My experience from the 2008 general election: You can't expect the news media to
understand anything from the perspective of an election administrator, or for that matter, from the
perspective of a voter. Did you think that one function of the news media was to inform its
readership? As a case study, I looked at the kind of detailed election information that the Raleigh
based News & Observer carried this election season. While the N&O has a shrinking print
edition, it has a robust website, but this year the online coverage of elections seemed to have been
seduced by an extensive interactive application I consider to have been poorly designed, which
instead of supplementing easy to find information in list format for readers who think linearly
rather than interactively, simply replaced the detailed information until the very last minute.
To analyze this, I used some of the skills learned last year in a graduate school Visual
Communication and Web Design class I took at Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass
Communication. My interactions with and observations of the News & Observer, the major daily
in the Raleigh-Durham area, was that details important to voters and election officials were
almost wholly excluded, or glossed over in favor of faux details, like the controversy about social
security number matching of voter registration applications. Actual information was to be
presented in a way that few readers could find, less would understand how to use, and even a
smaller subset would be able to actually extract any information. Post election, the N&O
dispensed with its usual precinct by precinct vote totals in the print edition (understandable), but
admitted in a later article that the online version of the detailed totals had been "hard to find", but
neither the print nor online version of the follow-up bothered to tell the reader how to find the
Early voting apparently snuck up on the major media, even though OVER 60% of all the
votes in the four-county reader area wound up being cast at early voting sites:
ORANGE DURHAM WAKE JOHNSTON TOTAL
(EV) 51791 97697 250435 34604 434527
VOTES 75194 137300 440013 70018 722525
% EV 68.88% 71.16% 56.92% 49.42% 60.14%
For the second general election in a row, I signed up as an early voting worker for the
Wake County Board of Elections, working at the Pullen Arts Center early voting site for 12 days
(I had worked nine days at the same site in 2004). This year, I checked in voters on the laptop
(probably 2,000 of them) and gave them authorizations to vote, registered new voters at "same
day registration", helped voters fill out voter registration applications, and worked the line doing
crowd control and answering questions. I handed out "I voted early" stickers. The only thing I did
not do was hand out any of the 42 ballot styles. My shoulders still hurt from a week of handing
out ballots during 2004 early voting, my main task that year. In 2008, I decided to go on a
crusade for news media coverage of early voting. A week or so prior to the October 16, 2008
early voting kickoff, I emailed several writers and editor at the N&O, encouraging them to
publish some details. I noted that for the presidential primary, the first article with any details ran
the day before early voting ended, which simply resulted in longer lines during the peak period
with the longest wait. I suggested that they run a list of early voting times and locations before
early voting started, so that voters could clip out the list, and then run a weekly update.
The initial response from the senior editor was that they did not have room in the print
edition, and they thought it was a higher priority to use the space in the print edition to cover the
gubernatorial debates in detail. They gave no reason why they could not run a list in the online
edition, where copy space was unlimited. They did invite me twice to attend the daily meeting of
the N&O staff which decides what articles to run. Frankly, I did not have time to attend.
The first N&O story ran October 16, the first day of early voting, focused on the fact that
voters could register at the early voting sites. Here is what ran in print and online as to when and
how to vote early:
"Check your county's board of elections for early voting sites and hours. These sites may
be different from your usual voting place. All one-stop voting sites will be open during
business hours Monday through Friday, although opening and closing times vary. Some
counties will have sites open on weekends. On Election Day, anyone in line when the
polls close can vote. During early voting, that decision is up to the county elections
Of course, we all know that in most places, the weekday hours were NOT regular business
hours, that most counties had evening hours (not mentioned), that three of the four area counties
(not just "some") had weekend hours, and there was no option of local boards to make people
leave who were in line at closing. The article did run on about wearing buttons at the polls, and
even ran this mysterious sentence "Elections officials warn voters not to take someone else's word
about voting. If you get a postcard or a phone call saying you can't vote, double check." The
N&O did run the phone numbers of the four local county boards of elections, but in later articles,
this was replaced by the main number for the State Board of Elections as the contact for voters to
find out where their early voting site was. The State Board phone number ran three days in a row
in the print edition, I believe. I'm not sure what good it would have been for a voter to call the
State to get a local detail.
The N&O had apparently decided to focus on a hot new application for early voters, an
interactive online map, as its sole tool to actually convey information to voters, the first link to
that site was posted in the online edition on October 14.. The same app ran in the Charlotte
Observer, a sister paper. The print edition of the N&O referred voters to its new FactFinder site.
Here is what you got for Wake County, a map that showed all the way out to 20 miles north
Note the little balloons, with small instruction to 'click on the points in the interactive map for
more information about when and where you can vote early in Wake County'. In downtown
Raleigh, three balloons were on top of each other due to the scale of the map (a problem that
would have been easily solved by having the web designer zoom in the map.) I showed the page
to my spouse, telling her she could find her early voting site by using this map. Her response was
"what are the balloons for?"
Oh, and if you actually used the map and clicked on a location, then closed out the location
and wanted to go to another location? The map helpfully centered itself on Franklin County,
showing no Wake County sites at all.
If you tried clicking on the balloon, you got information like this, with the address of the
actual location not showing on the screen, and the earliest days missing:
(slight detail error, the picture was actually of the Century Post Office and Wake County
Courthouse, not the County Administration Building where early voting was actually conducted)
I sent in a problem report to the N&O explaining that much of the information was not
viewable and the map was difficult to use and got this response:
"Sorry you're having trouble with the early-voting map. You probably need to zoom in on the
map to separate the buttons so you can select the one you want. Click on the + button in the upper
left corner to zoom in. You can use the arrows in the same corner to move the map around."
Was this a joke? Who do they think are their users? Why suggest that readers have to drag the
map around and zoom it when the designer could have correctly sized the map to begin with? The
sizing of the map was never fixed, the screen grabs were made in late November.
There was a small link on the original map "click for larger map", which produced the
following less useful map, BUT WITH A LIST OF TIMES AND LOCATIONS!
Perhaps it could have been labeled, "click for list of locations" Unfortunately, the list truncated
the actual hours, only by clicking the link under the name of the location could you actually get
the hours. How many menus was this, with how many sets of confusing instructions?
On Friday, October 16, the Wake County Board of Elections added four sites for the
following Monday through Wednesday, resulting in the following article in the Saturday N&O
buried in the local section, which failed to list the hours of the sites, or where they were.
Remember, this was the first actual mention in the print edition of the sites. There were no earlier
articles for even the best voters to refer back to:
RALEIGH - Voting days have been extended for four Wake County early-voting sites.
Polls will be open from Monday through Nov. 1 at the following locations: Cary Towne
Center, Chavis Community Center, Pullen Arts Center and Triangle Town Center. Polls
at those sites were to close for a few days, but they will now be open longer, according to
Cherie Poucher, director of the Wake Board of Elections. For more information, go to
www.wakegov.com/elections or call the Wake County Board of Elections at 856-6240.
I went to the wonderful interactive map on Monday afternoon, and noted that the map did
not reflect the added dates and locations, and immediately emailed the N&O, getting the
following response back: 'I also appreciate your letting us know about changes in the hours of the
Wake sites. I'll have a staffer look into updating the map. Thanks again and best to you." My
reply? "It was in your Saturday paper".
Regional online editions of the N&O did contain some detailed information. The October
18 online Durham edition had detailed information on early voting sites in Durham, while the
Orange County version ran a list of Orange County locations online October 22. I do not know
whether either the Orange or Durham print editions carried this information. Finally, on October
31, the day before early voting ended, and with just two days to go in a 17-day period (as I had
predicted), the N&O ran a list of early voting sites in the print and online editions for Wake
County. The headline? "Want to cast your ballot early? Here's your guide for how to do it."
The early voting site I worked at had about 900 voters per day the first five or six days
when no useful media details were provided, with frequent five or 10 minute periods with no
voters. By a day or two before the detailed list ran, the site was slammed with 1,700 voters per
day and long lines.
"Can't wait until Election Day to cast your ballot? You can still vote early through Saturday. Early
voters must vote in the county in which they are registered. Here is a list of all early voting
locations in the Triangle. Note that the early-voting sites will probably differ from your usual
voting place. (Note: Board of Elections officials in each county will decide today whether to
extend early voting until 5 p.m. on Saturday.)"
[followed the detailed list of sites]
The N&O DID run, two weeks before the election, a large 50+ page insert voter's guide.
Even that insert (despite large amounts of white space) did not have a list of early voting
locations and times. It did tell you to look on an inside page for details on early voting sites and
locations, but the websites you could find with the URLs printed out were actually links to find
election day polling sites.
What kind of information could have been run? At Pullen, I found that over 10% of voters
were reporting address changes to new precincts. Did the N&O ever report on the important issue
of what to do if you had moved and not reported the address change to the local board of
elections? NEVER. Not in a news story, not in the voter guide, not online, not anywhere. Did
they mention that by going to an early voting site, you could avoid a provisional ballot on
election day? Nope. Did they ever mention in the run-up to the election that voters who had
moved simply take their voter registration card (which has a change of address form on the back)
and fill it out and mail it in? Nope. But we did get several articles on whether people could wear
campaign buttons to the polls.
My suggestion? The State Board of Elections should put together a Q&A article for the
next set of elections about actual real life problems voters face in voting. Each county board
could replicate it with a local angle on local details. The State Board could work on a uniform
format of how to design the web application. Some counties made it easy to report address
changes, Wake County even designed a form to print out to report an in-county move, though it
no longer appears to be online. Wake has a detailed FAQ.
Wait a minute? If media coverage of early voting was so terrible, how did 434,527 N&O
circulation area residents find out about the times and locations and use early voting? Certainly,
some saw the excellent sites some counties ran, like Wake's http://wakevotesearly.com which ran
maps and lists. But the main locus of public and useful election information was ceded to one
political campaign, run by the political organization of a presidential candidate who won early
voting in North Carolina by over 300,000 votes. That candidate used text messages, full page ads
that directed voters to a website, flyers with lists distributed door to door, and thousands of
volunteers in the Triangle area who distributed the information retail. Certainly one reason for the
heavy disparity in early voting, both from the party of the voter and the candidate voted for, was
enthusiasm and interest, but another part was that the campaign, of course, targeted the
information to members of that party, and media outlets favorable in readership. The full page
ads did not list the actual hours, they directed you to the candidate's website to find out. Unlikely
that supporters of the other candidate would take advantage of this! Some commentators have
now noted a concern that this most organized political campaign in American history might start
communicating directly with its two million volunteers and millions of supporters, bypassing the
media. What if it is the media that actually bypassed its readers?
One tool used by that campaign to communicate with supporters was even a YouTube
video aimed just at Durham County (viewed over 3,000 times) explaining straight ticket voting
and reminding voters to flip the ballot to vote for judges. Interestingly, Durham County had the
least dropoff of those failing to vote for President, 0.38%. Note the subliminal URL embedded in
Finally, the ubiquitous yellow signs at polling places:
The N&O had detailed coverage of the Social Security Administration's complaint that
North Carolina must be doing something to intimidate voters since it was making heavy use of
the SSN database to check voters. NC was making such heavy checks because nearly a million
new voters registered during 2008., that if you matched either the SSN database or the DMV
database you were home free, and that federal law required checking these sources. Never mind
that the state's efforts were intended to REDUCE the number of voters who had to produce ID at
the polls. N&O Public Editor Ted Vaden did run an article explaining that the N&O
"…was careless in slamming into the paper the New York Times story, suggesting
problems with North Carolina's system, without checking with state election officials. In
the follow-up story, … gave Bartlett an opportunity to make clear that new registrants
would not be deterred from voting. The story noted that …, North Carolina has not been
accused of improperly purging its …The combination of the two front-page stories still
left me with the impression that there's a problem with North Carolina's voter registration
system that will be fixed after the election. But it is a technical problem that does not
affect anyone's ability to vote. If a purpose of The N&O's reporting is to alleviate citizens'
anxiety about the voting process, these stories did not succeed."
Ted did say that a senior editor "noted that the paper has run several times, and will
continue to do so, information on how to vote under the early voting process that started
Thursday." As detailed above, not exactly.
Contrast this with the detailed election administration reporting of the Minneapolis Star-
Tribune online edition concerning the ongoing US Senate recount:
Some observations from Bill Gilkeson, chief election law drafter for the North Carolina General
Assembly, a former reporter for two North Carolina daily newspapers, and a long time chief
judge at a Wake County precinct:
Communicating our election system to the public, like making the system work, is not a job you
can do without trying very hard. Early voting, especially, is the result of hard-won legislative
compromises that I think reached a good balance. But the compromises result in a system that is
complicated for voters to understand, and easy for them to misunderstand. I think we (including
the media) have to admit that, and listen to how voters perceive things. Here are some
misconceptions I noticed or think might be out there:
When a story says "Find your early voting site," I might think there is only one early voting
site that is "mine." The way only one election-day polling place is "mine." Of course, that's
not the way it works. It might be helpful for somebody to point out that with early voting,
anybody can vote at any site in the county.
If people do understand that they have a choice of sites at which they can early-vote, they
may not understand that everything is stovepiped within counties. If they live in Johnston
County but work in Wake, and they see their fellow employees going to vote at a certain
early voting site in Wake, they may think they can do that, too, and may make their plans
I'm not sure everybody gets the difference between an early voting site and an election day
polling place. People think that, if their neighbors voted at a certain nearby building during
early voting, they should be able to vote at that same building on election day.
It is very counter-intuitive to some people that you can't early-vote on Monday, the
day before the election. If voting places are open on the Saturday before the election, which
isn't even a business day, what's up that they're closed on the Monday before the election,
when everything else is open for business? I talked to some people on Saturday who said they
couldn't go to the polls on Tuesday, but they planned to vote on Monday -- that was just more
convenient for them. Of course we know that election officials need to shut down voting on
Monday to get everything ready for Tuesday. But voters don't necessarily think of that.