Electionland: How I helped investigate and cover voters’ issues on Election Day

Story by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

Photo by Aaron Weintraub

It was during a rare quiet moment when we saw the tweet about the shooting. Immediately, we delegated tasks: contact the person who had sent the tweet, look for other social media posts about the incident and use Google Maps to pinpoint the exact location.

This might not seem like the work journalists would do while covering a presidential election, but this year, the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication was a partner for Electionland. The project, spearheaded by ProPublica and facilitated at the SOJC by Carolyn S. Chambers Professor of Journalism Damian Radcliffe, brought together 13 journalism schools and a number of industry partners — including Google News Lab, the USA Today Network, Univision News, First Draft, WNYC and the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism — to track incidences of problems that might prevent people from voting. Most of these likely problems revolved around issues of long lines, potential voter intimidation and broken voting machines.

But some were more dramatic than that. While checking TweetDeck, a Twitter tool that makes it easy to find tweets based on location and keywords, one SOJC student found a tweet from a voter in Los Angeles County whose polling station, a school, was in lockdown because of a nearby shooting. When we saw this, we got to work immediately.

By finding out more about the person who shared the tweet, searching for other tweets about the shooting and comparing video taken near the scene with street-view imagery on Google Maps, we were able to verify that the shooting had caused the school to temporarily close down. As “feeders,” we passed this information on to the journalists we were working with. The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times picked up the story.

This was a particularly exciting moment among many smaller hits. Throughout election day, 85 students at the SOJC were part of a cohort of over 1,000 journalists nationwide who helped identify information on social media, resulting in the publication of more than 130 news stories across the media.

In addition to individual students, four classes participated in our Electionland newsroom. T he groups worked together to search Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Participants had access to technology like TweetDeck, Facebook Signal and Dataminr to not only sort through election-related tweets, but also help determine their validity. We SOJC students focused on finding —  and reporting — incidents in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii.

Surrounding this election, there have been national discussions on the U.S. voting system, particularly concerning how it discourages or makes it difficult for certain groups of people to vote. Elements of these discussions emerged in our work.

One of the main issues students found was long lines. Although there are no federal laws regarding waiting times to vote, guidelines from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration say: “No citizen should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote.” Yet many of the people we heard from on social media reported having to wait hours to cast their ballots. This is an issue, because as Stephen Pettigrew, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, found: “People who do wait are less likely to vote in the future as a result.” Pettigrew has also concluded that urban voters, minority voters and early voters are more likely to wait longer.

In addition to reporting on these issues on social media, I also helped run a live election blog documenting the works students were doing, as well as positive stories around the election. One that stands out was the trend on social media of people sharing Glenn Ligon’s neon sign art piece “Double America” in lieu of an “I voted” sticker. Ligon’s piece is currently on display at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art as part of the “Between the World and Me: African American Artists Respond to Ta-Nehisi Coates” exhibit. It was interesting that so many people related to the work and its connection to what many see as the divided sociopolitical climate in the United States.

As the polls closed and results started coming in, we switched the blog to covering reactions to the election, not only in the United States, but around the world. There was no place I would have rather been than with my fellow journalists as we watched history being made.

When Donald Trump was announced as the president-elect, some of us went out and reported on the student protests that started in the immediate aftermath. After spending a whole day on social media, the election truly felt real when I was photographing and interviewing students. Electionland showed me how much Americans care about their right to vote, through people sharing both discouraging and encouraging voting experiences. But it was when I saw students coming out in mass to express their opinions and join together that I truly understood their passion for the U.S. democratic process.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a senior majoring in journalism and international studies with an African studies minor at the University of Oregon. In summer 2015, she interned at Today Newspaper in Accra, Ghana, through the Media in Ghana program. She spent the fall 2015 term in Morocco, where she wrote profiles on a visual artist and a political cartoonist. This past summer, she interned in New York City at Empathetic Media, a startup focused in augmented and virtual reality storytelling, and Paper magazine. She is currently managing editor for Ethos magazine, writes for Bitch Media (where she interned in 2014), covers arts and entertainment for Emerald Media, is a coach at the SOJC’s Writing Central and edits Dressed Up Ducks, the university’s style blog. She is also working on her Honors College thesis, which focuses on la SAPE, a social movement of well-dressed men that started in the two Congos. 

Aaron Weintraub is a senior in the SOJC studying journalism and Arabic, which he hopes to use as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. This is his first year working as a digital media intern for the SOJC’s Communications Office. In the past, he studied Arabic and Islamic studies in Keble College at Oxford University and at the Qasid Institute in Amman, Jordan, where he worked as an independent feature writer during the summer of 2016. He has also served as a writer and photographer for the UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine. You can find Weintraub’s collection of photography, much of which he took while traveling, at aaronweintraubphotos.wordpress.com. When he’s not writing or shooting photos, he enjoys climbing, biking and other activities that occasionally injure him.