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2015 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

Ballot Watch

 

About the Project

In the run-up to the November midterm election, the race for control of the Senate was so tight that in some states, the outcomes were determined by a small number of votes.

But who was able to cast those votes? That question is at the heart of a renewed debate about access to the ballot, spurred over the past five years by voting laws passed in 28 states. This is a story with national and local implications. It’s also one where the arguments are abundant, but facts are harder to pin down.

To understand what’s changed, and what it means for voters, FRONTLINE launched Ballot Watch, an interactive database to track voting laws nationwide.

We took a “structured journalism” approach to Ballot Watch, narrowing our focus to the four policies that have seen the most legislative movement and that most affect voters’ access to the ballot: voter ID, absentee voting, early voting and felon voting rights. Rather than publishing the results in a single story that would soon become outdated, we published the database itself, allowing users to search for the laws that interest and impact them most directly. And because the database is easily updatable, it always reflects the most current state of affairs.

Our reporters also mined the database to write a series of stories, finding that since 2010:
  • 19 states passed laws imposing tighter restrictions on who can vote
  • Of those states, nine had a documented history of discriminating against minority voters
  • Six states passed laws expanding access for voters
  • Two states — Idaho and Rhode Island — passed both restrictive and expansive laws

Another significant finding: Several states that were requiring voter IDs in an effort to combat voter fraud at the polls were not applying the same standards when it came to absentee ballot laws. While voter fraud is rare, election law experts say that when it does occur, it’s more likely to happen through mail-in ballots than people impersonating eligible voters at the polls. Our story detailing this finding received nearly 50,000 page views and sparked a robust discussion on our website and across social media.

To capitalize on the conversation around Ballot Watch, FRONTLINE reached out to our social media audiences on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram, asking them what questions they had about their right to vote. We then created a series of short explainer videos, in which digital reporter Sarah Childress directly answered those questions. We posted those across our social media channels on Election Day, provoking further debate.

We also published a graphic in October, breaking down election laws in the 36 states that allowed early in-person voting and detailing how those policies differ.

Ballot Watch is an ongoing project. We’ll continue to track voting laws — and any resulting legal challenges — through at least the 2016 election. Our goal: To keep our audience up to date on where it’s getting harder and easier to vote in America, what that means for them and why it matters.