​​1. Get to know your local election officials. Now.

Call them up, introduce yourself and exchange contact information before a major controversy emerges. Go meet those who run elections in your area in person and find out how they do their jobs and what concerns they have about the upcoming elections.

Develop a relationship so election officials know they can trust you to report the news accurately and you can trust them to give you the information and access you need. The sooner you do this the better. Election offices get busier and busier as an election approaches.

Many election administrators are not used to working with the media. As confusing as the voting process might seem to you, the reporting process is confusing to them. Help them help you. Let them know what you need, and when and in what form you need it. Get the name of the person you should contact when you need immediate help in an emergency.

Remember, election offices come in many shapes and sizes. Some have huge teams with communications and IT departments. Others are run by one person, who might have other responsibilities such as handling licenses and land records. Many feel overworked and under-resourced. But most want voters to have accurate information – if for no other reason than it makes their jobs easier and increases the likelihood of a smooth election.

2. Know the rules.

The laws and rules governing elections differ across the country. You need to know what is and isn’t allowed in the jurisdiction you’re covering, including the rules for journalists reporting at the polls on Election Day. Where can you stand in a polling place? Who can you talk to? What can you record? Besides the local election office, there are many trusted sources for this information, including some of the nonpartisan groups and state or national authorities listed below.

Understanding the laws and practices used in an election will help you better assess allegations of irregularities. For example, some states prohibit what is sometimes called “ballot harvesting,” or the process of an individual delivering other voters’ mail or absentee ballots. All states allow voters to do this to some extent, but some restrict it to family members or a limited number of ballots. Knowing what is permissible in your area makes a big difference when someone claims that those engaged in the process are “cheating” and an election is invalid.

It’s also important to recognize that political parties and outside interest groups often try to shape election laws and rules in an effort to influence the outcome. When you cover changes or challenges to the laws, try to find out who’s behind them and why. It could be an effort to fix a problem that emerged in the last election, or an effort to alter the outcome in the next one.

3. Reach out to all the players.

There are many parties involved in elections and voting. You need to know who they are, who you can trust and how they can help you do your job. Besides election officials, other government entities are involved in the voting process and can provide useful information and perspectives. It might be the city council, state attorney general or independent election commission. Find out who plays what role in your area, and who has credibility and knowledge when it comes to talking about elections.

Political parties and candidates also have a vested interest in how elections are run, as do groups running initiative campaigns. There are vendors who provide and service election equipment who are knowledgeable about the process and the many logistical challenges. Academic researchers and advocacy groups spend a great deal of time studying the voting process. Many of these sources are very close to election officials (some used to run elections themselves) and know what’s going on behind the scenes. Again, don’t forget the voters, who can prdovide another perspective as you try to round out your stories.

As always, vet your sources. Make sure they know what they’re talking about. Press everyone to back up their claims with evidence, and beware of partisan motivations, which are extremely pervasive when it comes to voting. If someone says a machine changed votes, where’s the proof? If someone claims that thousands of voters are disenfranchised by a new ID law, can they back that up? If an election official says a computer glitch didn’t affect the vote count, can they explain how and why?

4. Find out what keeps officials up at night.

Election administrators are constantly worried about the “what ifs.” What if there’s a major hurricane on Election Day? What if they run out of ballots? What if the power goes out? What if there’s a cyberattack? What if AI-generated disinformation is sent to voters? What if there’s violence at a polling site?

It helps to be aware of the many possibilities and what, if anything, is being done to prevent or prepare to respond to such problems. Ask election officials and experts you trust what they’re most worried about. Having a basic understanding of some of the potential threats could help you spot controversies early on. It will also better equip you to know who to talk to, what questions to ask and how to explain what’s happening to the public.

One piece of advice: Every major election seems to encounter a problem that few people expected. Be prepared for the unexpected. In 2000, it was Florida’s hanging chads. In 2004, there were problems with new voting machines. In 2012, voters confronted extraordinarily long lines.

Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams says election officials are often fighting “the last war.” After 2016, protecting against foreign cyberattacks became the major focus. But the threats that emerged in 2020 — a pandemic and domestic attacks — “were totally different,” he notes. “And this is the nature of anything, is learning from the past but also understanding it’s of limited value in anticipating the future.”

It’s a warning that journalists covering elections should heed as well.

5. Beware of words and labels, and how they’re used.

They’re not always what they appear. Take the word “integrity.” Some groups and people who say they want to improve “election integrity” are instead trying to limit voter access or undermine public confidence in voting. Others who claim to be fighting voter “suppression” might be more interested in boosting turnout among particular interest groups. What do people mean when they call something “fraud” or “intimidation”? Why do some people use the term “ballot harvesting” and is it appropriate for reporters to use it?

Are officials “purging” the voter rolls or conducting routine “list maintenance”? It depends. If aggressive action by a partisan official leads to the removal of a large number of legitimate voters from the rolls, “purging” is probably the right word. If an election office is removing the names of voters who have moved or died, following a routine procedure, they’re probably doing “list maintenance”.

Did an election office send a “ballot” to someone who no longer lives at an address? Or was it a “ballot application”? Or maybe a “voter guide” that someone mistook for a ballot? In the heat of a debate over whether mail ballots are secure, it makes a big difference.

If a jurisdiction eliminates a ballot drop box, are voters being “disenfranchised,” “suppressed” or “inconvenienced”?

The words used during such debates can add to public confusion about voting, and are often employed to advance a political agenda. Be careful how you use them. The sources listed below can help you sort it out.

6. Report on some of the good things about voting.

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. You will likely find interesting personal stories when you start reporting on voting. You might want to profile some of the individuals involved in our elections — poll workers, civic activists, voters — and why they do what they do. Such stories can help illustrate some of the broader issues at stake. What obstacles do election officials have to overcome? What lengths do some voters go to cast their ballot and why? Why did a woman in New Jersey keep coming back to work at the polls for 79 years?

Our voting system is extraordinary and represents the only time Americans collectively influence who their leaders will be. Reporting on some of the good aspects of voting and the process can be part of the story.

There is no better example than what happened in 2020 when a global pandemic hit just as the nation was preparing to vote in primaries. Election officials quickly revamped operations so voters could still cast ballots. Some of what they did was innovative and even heroic. What does this say about them and also about our country and communities? One of the best depictions of the many challenges faced by election administrators in 2020 is a documentary called “No Time to Fail.” It might give you some story ideas.

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