Electionland sleuths on the hunt for U.S. voting irregularities, intimidation

Electionland may need a better name.

And that probably means snappier titles for the more than a thousand journalists and data sleuths working on it too. All the names should be something more superhero-ey.

That’s because they’ve embarked on a project that has the potential to stop incidents of vote delaying, vote denying, and vote bullying, as well as hoaxes, in their treacherous tracks on election day Tuesday in the U.S.

There is a Marvel comic-like might about their ambition.

“This is the first election where we have the technology to really be able to do this,” says Jessica Huseman, a senior reporting fellow with ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism outfit.

ProPublica is spearheading Electionland along with Google newslabs, some 250 news organizations and 13 journalism schools.

Organizations like the New York Times, USA Today, Univision, the Los Angeles Times and the Miami Herald are onboard and determined to defy the journalistic laws of nature and work together, not in a race against each other.

Scouring social media reports

Here’s how: Graduate students from across the country have been enlisted to scrape Twitter, Facebook, virtually every social media outlet they can find that may reference voting problems. That means looking for hoaxes like the one a few days ago telling people they can vote by text (they can’t), or voting precincts insisting on ID when that state or county technically doesn’t require it.

They will hunt for complaints, for example, of excessively long lines, or intimidation or signs of people being turned away in unusual numbers, poll workers giving out incorrect information, people hassling voters inside or in front of polling stations.

Jessica Huseman-ProPublica-Electionland

Jessica Huseman, senior reporting fellow with ProPublica, says the ability to tap into social media to monitor polling stations has advanced greatly since the last U.S. presidential election. (Sean Conaboy for CBC)

Electionland has some company in this hunt for voting snags and voter suppression.

The crowdsourced crisis map Ushahidi will be a platform for Americans to report back to about any problems. The platform has been used in disasters and wars, and political clashes, and interestingly has its roots in a sketchy and ultimately violent election.

Ushahidi, which translates from Swahili as “voice,” was an emergency tech innovation built in the aftermath of the controversial 2007 Kenyan presidential election.

Claims of vote rigging meant the official win by Mwai Kibaki wasn’t accepted by opponent Raila Odinga. Then came the rage and violence, but not widespread reporting. So,  some worried and smart souls devised a tech solution that would allow average citizens to identify problems and share results with everyone else. As with Electionland, the results will be filtered and verified.

Facebook and Twitter, of course, existed during the last U.S. presidential election, but social media buy-in has never been as strong. It has become instinct for Americans to turn to their social media pages to report any kind of irritant or wrongdoing they encounter. Those behind Electionland and Ushadhidi know they can tap into that.

In the case of Electionland, the tips, picked up by the hundreds of graduate students, will be filtered by social media verification teams. Then the details will be passed on to some 400 journalists across the country who will fan out to immediately investigate and report back to the hub for Electionland in New York.

Rather than file stories about problems the day after the polls closed, as has been the tradition, this year, Electionland intends to get the stories out as quickly as possible while the polls are still open and problems can be immediately addressed.

So, in the case of long lines, says Huseman, “they can go film those long lines, and hopefully that will get the attention of the officials involved.” 

“They can send out additional people to that polling station or expedite it in the same way,” she said. “The same is true for misapplication of voter laws — those could be fixed in real time if officials would reinform their poll workers.”

Focused on local election handling, not parties

Huseman took a moment to talk to CBC while in the midst of a training session for the team at the City University of New York last week. It seemed a blur of laptops, and phones, and coffee cups and horse-in-the-gate energy.

There is a lot to watch out for. The nearly 9,000 jurisdictions governing voting rules in the United States means the system is far too disjointed and complicated to be rigged as a whole, as Republican candidate Donald Trump continues to maintain as he prepares for the showdown with Democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton. But the scattered rules and technologies are invitations for confusion and obstruction.

ProPublica Electionland

In addition to their own proactive techniques, the Electionland team will solicit through their own social media accounts complaints from voters alleging suppression or improper conduct from local officials. (Sean Conaboy for CBC)

And a lot of the voting machine technology is old and poorly maintained. Much of it was bought after the chaotic election of 2000. Burned by the uncertainty of paper ballots, a fortune was spent by states for electronic voting machines, but many of those states haven’t upgraded their machines and some are barely hanging on.

Failures and mistakes are indeed possible.

Election officials from some states, like West Virginia, have actually reached out to Electionland asking for help, for a heads-up as quickly as possible if anything goes awry.

Electionland reports have already affected change, as reports of Trump supporters with bullhorns screaming at early voters in West Palm Beach, Fla., resulting in sheriffs stationed at the polling place to counter the intimidation.

You can probably already hear the cynical cries of partisanship. But Huseman insists the campaigns aren’t the concern of Electionland.

“We have not heard from the campaigns. At the end of the day, we don’t care about the campaigns. We are much more concerned about local election administration,” insists Huseman.

This, it seems, is just about ensuring all who are eligible and want to vote can. The cape-less Electionland team members have the coffee, the batteries, the chargers, the Wi-Fi, the infrastructure and the intellect to be ready.

Come what may.

Follow the U.S. election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, with CBC News

CBC.ca: Our day starts first thing in the morning at CBCNews.ca with news and analysis, then as polls close, you can get live results and insights into the conversations happening on the ground and online. We’ll cover the story from a Canadian perspective until a new U.S. president is declared.

CBC Television: America Votes, the CBC News election special with Peter Mansbridge, starts at 9 p.m. ET on CBC-TV and 8 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

CBC Radio One: Our election special hosted by Susan Bonner and Michael Enright starts at 8 p.m. ET.


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