News21 Students Investigate Voting Rights

Aug. 13, 2012

Student journalists participating in the national Carnegie-Knight News21 program have produced a major national investigation into voting rights in the U.S.

“Who Can Vote?” is the 2012 project of News21, a national investigative reporting initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The goal of News21, headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, is to produce in-depth, innovative and interactive investigative journalism on issues of national importance.

Twenty-four students from 11 universities across the country worked on the voting rights project under the direction of journalism professionals. The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation provided a grant supporting the work of six of the students, and the Hearst Foundations supported another three fellows.

The project began in January 2012 with a video-conferenced seminar on voting rights taught by Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post and Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Cronkite School. The students heard from multiple experts, conducted interviews and did extensive research on voting and voting rights.

During the summer, they participated in an intensive 10-week investigative reporting fellowship based out of a newsroom at the Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix. The fellows traveled to more than 40 cities, 21 states and one U.S. territory, conducted more than 1,000 interviews, requested thousands of public records and reviewed nearly 5,000 documents. Their most ambitious effort was to gather, organize and analyze all reported cases of election fraud in the U.S. since 2000, building the most comprehensive database of its kind.

“In seven months, these outstanding students have produced original, timely multimedia journalism about a subject of great national importance, with voices and faces of prospective voters throughout the country, plus the only authoritative database and analysis of election fraud cases in all 50 states from 2000 to now,” Downie said.

“Through a growing number of national and local publishing partnerships, along with the project's own website, we expect their work to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans this election season. And we believe the student journalists' growth and accomplishments during the News21 experience will greatly enrich their future careers.”

The students, led by fellows Nick Andersen, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, and Annelise Russell, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, developed an active online presence for the project over the summer. Andersen managed the News21 Twitter account, @WhoCanVote, tweeting more than 1,700 times and building an audience of more than 200 followers in 10 weeks. Russell coordinated a voting rights blog that posted more than 160 submissions, including daily news items, photos and updates on the project’s progress.

The finished project, launched just before the 2012 political conventions, consists of more than 20 in-depth reports and rich multimedia content that includes interactive databases and data visualizations, video profiles and photo galleries.

“(News21) offers the unique privilege to work in a groundbreaking and cutting-edge newsroom with nationally renowned members of the journalism industry,” said Cronkite graduate student Corbin Carson, who led a team investigating voter fraud. “Each year the national topics put the fellows in the position to have their work sought after by newsrooms across the country.”

Michael Ciaglo, a graduate of the University of Oregon who produced multimedia content for the project, said, “At News21 the amount of time you get to spend on one subject means that, at the end of the day, you have something with so much more depth and significance than could be produced under the pressure of putting out a daily paper.”

Major media partners that will publish all or part of the project include The Washington Post, nbcnews.com, National Public Radio, The Center for Public Integrity, The Philadelphia Inquirer, nonprofit investigative online sites affiliated with the Investigative News Network and New America Media, which represents ethnic media.

Based on an exhaustive public records search, the News21 analysis of voter fraud shows:
• Since 2000, while fraud has occurred, the number of cases is infinitesimal.
• In-person voter impersonation on Election Day, which prompted 37 state legislatures to enact or consider tough voter ID laws, is virtually non-existent. Only 10 such cases over more than a decade were reported.
• There is more fraud in absentee ballots and voter registration than any other category. The analysis shows 329 cases of absentee ballot fraud and 364 cases of registration fraud. A required photo ID at the polls would not have prevented these cases.
• Voters make a lot of mistakes, from people accidentally voting twice to voting in the wrong precinct. However, few cases reveal a coordinated effort to change election results.
• Election officials make a lot of mistakes, giving voters ballots when they’ve already voted, for instance. Election workers are often confused about voters’ eligibility requirements.

Among the other project findings:
• Photo ID laws and other new voting restrictions disproportionately affect minorities, students, the disabled and the elderly.
• State rules on voting by felons vary widely. In some states, felons can vote from prison; in other states, felons may never regain their right to vote.
• True the Vote, a Texas-based Tea Party initiative, has trained and dispatched election observers in at least 20 states. The growing national movement’s goal is to prevent voter fraud; opponents say it’s a way to intimidate eligible voters, particularly minorities.
• Once-neutral secretary of state offices are becoming increasingly politicized as these office holders join the political debate over voting access.

2012 News21 Fellows
• Nick Andersen, University of North Carolina
• Maryann Batlle, Arizona State University
• Sarah Jane Capper, Syracuse University
• Corbin Carson, Arizona State University
• Lizzie Chen, University of Texas
• Michael Ciaglo, University of Oregon
• Kassondra Cloos, Elon University
• Alia Conley, University of Nebraska
• John “Jack” Fitzpatrick, Arizona State University
• Joseph “Joe” Henke, Arizona State University
• Natasha Khan, Arizona State University
• Jeremy Knop, Arizona State University
• Ana Victoria Lastra, University of Oklahoma
• Ethan Magoc, University of Florida
• Emily Nohr, University of Nebraska
• Caitlin O’Donnell, Elon University
• Khara Persad, Arizona State University
• Alex Remington, Harvard University
• Andrea Rumbaugh, University of Florida
• Annelise Russell, University of Oklahoma
• Lindsey Ruta, University of Oklahoma
• Alissa Skelton, University of Nebraska
• Carl Straumsheim, University of Maryland
• AJ Vicens, Arizona State University