On Election Day, ProPublica will lead a national team of real-time voting sleuths
Scott Klein is tired of sitting out Election Day.
When November rolls around, ProPublica's newsroom of investigative reporters, data crunchers and social media wizards are usually left out of the excitement. As an organization typically given to longer-term work, ProPublica cedes Election Day to other journalists across the U.S. and focuses on what it does best: bombshell investigative stories.
Klein, ProPublica's deputy managing editor, wants to change all that.
"Election Day is a huge day for almost every newsroom in the country," he said. "But at ProPublica we've always gone home early that day. I've always been jealous of all my news nerd friends. So for a long time, I've wondered: What's the right place for us on Election Day? What could we be looking at? How could we be useful?"
This year, he's found an answer. When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off on Nov. 8, ProPublica's journalists will be holed up in the student newsroom at the City University of New York, working with their colleagues across the United States to spot problems with voting.
It's part of a project called ElectionLand, a collaborative effort between ProPublica, the USA Today Network, WNYC, The Google News Lab and Univision, among others. Together, the news organizations will work to identify long lines at polling places, lack of access to the ballot box and suss out evidence of election fraud.
The "virtual newsroom" is aiming to be a lead-generator for other newsrooms across the country, especially those in communities that have traditionally suffered from long lines or lack of voting access, Klein said.
Here's how it works: Using techniques from the social media verification group First Draft News Coalition (another partner), ProPublica will collect clues about possible voting problems across the United States. Then, instead of writing the stories themselves, ProPublica journalists will turn over those tips to their partners, who will follow up on the leads.
Local journalists have the right sources and know the communities, Klein said, so it makes sense to let them do the heavy-lifting.
"Doing a big national story about some local election official who isn't doing the right thing or needs more resources — that is just not going to have the same punch as handing that as a lead to a local reporter who has really strong ties to the community," Klein said. "When they publish that story, it's going to mean a lot more to that election official than me in New York publishing it. And they're going to do a better job anyway."
Plus, there's the issue of timing. A months-long takeout by ProPublica might be ultimately effective in getting corrupt officials ousted or bogus voting practices fixed. But a story published on Inauguration Day doesn't do anyone good on Election Day, he said.
There are other reasons now is the right time for this project, too, he said. Some states, like North Carolina, have passed laws that could affect citizens' access to the ballot box. Experts have warned that Russian hackers could try to sway the balance of the election from afar. And Republican nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the upcoming election, statements that raise the stakes for scrutiny on Election Day.
That, plus the nature of voting, makes an urgent case for the project, Klein said.
"If you can't vote on Election Day, you might as well not have the right to vote," he said. "It only happens on one day. You get to use this right on one day during the year. And if you're turned away, or the lines are too long, or you can't vote or if you're told you can't vote in this district — if you have any problems with voting, it makes it difficult to vindicate this right."
The vast amount of Election data now available to journalists — on social media and elsewhere — has also given rise to a parallel project, ProPublica’s Election DataBot. The initiative, developed in partnership with Google News Lab, skims a firehose of campaign data and spits out the most interesting tidbits to create an open-source tipsheet for journalists.
Both projects are efforts on ProPublica's part to maximize its impact on Election Day rather than watching wistfully from the sidelines. And, on top of that, there's the matter of newsroom camaraderie.
"I just wanted an excuse to order catering and make people work 17 hours in one day," Klein deadpanned.
Correction: A previous version of the story called Electionland a "voter fraud tip network." While ProPublica will be on the lookout for voter fraud, the initiative will also encompass other Election Day obstacles, such as long lines.