On the Verification Team for Electionland: Takeaways and the Importance of Persistence

Ariam Alula
Nov 13, 2018 · 5 min read

It was 8:30 a.m. when I sent my first tweet to the Maricopa County recorder in Arizona on Election Day. It read: “Hi. I’m working with @Electionland to track voter problems from @newmarkjschool. Are voters being redirected to other centers or is Chandler City the only one?” While mining tweets on the “verification” team, I had learned voters were locked out of their polling site and were asked to vote elsewhere.

Adrian Fontes is the recorder of Maricopa County, which is home to 2.2 million of the state’s 3.6 million registered voters in Arizona. That morning, he sent out several tweets and appeared on media interviews with local Fox affiliate and the KTAR 92.3 FM radio show. He also gave his thoughts about problems voters were facing while voting in this AZcentral.com article. According to a story following a tweet he sent out on Tuesday, he called [Tuesday] “a typical election day with typical, run-of-the-mill problems.”

There were tweets bursting from all corners of my Tweetdeck interface. I programmed about 12 of the 15 columns the night before joining the Electionland project, which was being hosted for the second time at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. The column with the words “(Vote OR election) AND (Turnout OR line) AND (hours OR crazy OR slow OR illegal OR broken OR long OR crowded OR failed OR unexpected)” generated more tweets than other search phrases.

Electionland is a group of newsrooms that coalesce on Election Day to track and report on the problems that prevent voters from casting their ballots. This project started in 2016.

Fontes responded to my tweet within 30 minutes: “If Gila Precinct is the voter’s assigned polling location, the Chandler City Hall Vote Center is the closest Vote Center. Voters may also go to any vote center in the country. More information on locations.maricopa.vote.” I wasn’t the only person tweeting Fontes who appeared to respond to tweets from voters who were confused, agitated and wanted answers. Fontes tweeted that the machines were “up and running” to which one Maricopa County voter replied, “No, it’s not. I’m here.”

Prior to Election Day in the newsroom, I had been trained to sniff out and discern the veracity of user-generated content from the interweb. In just three sessions in October and November, I learned to question every post using five critical questions:

  • “Am I looking at the original piece of content?”
  • “Who created this piece of content?”
  • “When was the piece of content captured?”
  • “Where was the piece of content captured?”
  • “Why was this piece of content captured?”

The 5 W’s I learned in elementary school extended to the verification desk in graduate school. The story I decided to pursue full throttle, of the nearly 100 tweets I mined on Election Day, was a tip from Stephanie Le of the Information Disorder Lab titled “Chandler, AZ Foreclosed Polling Site.”

The process of Electionland works like this.

ProPublica receives tip → Catcher reads tip → Verifier mines the web for “chatter” surrounding tip → Tip is sent to local reporters -> Reporter follows up with background included in the tip and writes a story

In essence, a tip is developed over time through the work of catchers and the verification team. The local reporters on the ground — AZcentral.com, and Arizona’s NPR affiliate KJZZ — had partnerships with ProPublica, and even though I didn’t speak to any of those reporters over the phone that day, I met one named Ian MacDougall who was curious about my end-of-the-day interview with a Maricopa voter named Joann Swain.

There were talks earlier in the day about the foreclosed polling site, and one tweet, in particular, caught my attention.

In a phone interview with Swain, I asked whether she thought this was true. She did. “There was an eviction sign outside of the polling site,” she said. She had proof.

Swain was one of thirty voters waiting on line to vote outside of Golf Academy of America in Maricopa. She lives about five minutes away from the site and waited on line for about 90 minutes before poll workers began asking voters to go vote at Chandler City Hall. “Even though it’s in the same county it’s a good distance,” she said. “The poll workers said they didn’t know that the equipment was locked in the facility until about 5 a.m.” Trucks brought in machines to set up voting booths along a strip.

Swain also confided in me. When poll workers gave her the option of casting a provisional ballot, she declined for fear that they may tamper with the document. “I just don’t trust them. I want to see it go on,” she said. Swain eventually left.

My interview landed me a contribution line in ProPublica’s second-day story titled “Aging Machines, Crowds, Humidity: Problems at the Polls Were Mundane but Widespread” which highlighted a laundry list of common voter problems that swept states all around the country, including old machines, power outages, and long lines to name a few.

The article reported, “Swain ultimately left at 8:30 a.m. By the time she returned, later in the day, poll workers had set up the voting machines delivered from Phoenix in another storefront in the shopping center. The original machines remained locked in the Golf Academy,” she said.

Electionland helped reinforced the importance of having persistence as a journalist, even when I’m not reporting. Aside from mining the web, I made three calls about voter problems relating to harassment and language barriers which has happened during midterms in Arizona during past elections. Two of the calls were made to election hotlines and another was made to Fontes, himself. My calls were not returned, but I wasn’t surprised nor felt defeated. The most important call of the night happened at 9 p.m. EST, and that was the best call anyone on the verification team could have received.

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