Democracy in the time of Electionland

A coalesced effort to engross a sleepy American electorate

On Thursday, November 10, in an attempt to reassure a class of frantic nascent journalists, a professor of mine declared: “We, as journalists, have to nudge people out of passive non-engagement.”

Passive non-engagement is exactly what the election of Donald J. Trump feels like — a collective “we don’t care!” from America to the rest of the world. Trump didn’t win by some cataclysmic margin, in fact, he’s currently still below Hillary Clinton in the popular vote. Trump won because of good ole fashioned American democracy — that being, a democracy that employs an electoral college system historically created to enfranchise slaveowners. But, I digress.

Our democracy elected Barack Obama. Twice. It can’t be all bad. So, putting aside the polls and all the ways the media failed us, let’s talk about Election Day, and one project that attempted to engage a passive American public.

Electionland, a collective effort to monitor voting issues across the US, debunked one of the biggest myths floating around the states — a myth propagated by our president-elect himself. The rumor: American elections are rigged. I’m sure that’s an idea many Democrats would like to adopt now, but by and large, Electionland showed us that there wasn’t mass voter suppression. There were some broken voter machines and long lines — but overall, the day went on as planned — well, maybe not as planned or as hoped, but it went as it was meant to go.

My role in Electionland was as a feeder — basically, checking the social media feeds of my designated state (West Virginia), verifying posts relating to voting issues, sending them to catchers — think: professional verifiers— then the information is sent to reporters on the ground.

Our CUNYJ-School newsroom transformed into an laboratory of MacBooks, colorful banners, international journalists, and endless Facebook Live streams — in fact Sasha M Fountain and Colin-Pierre Larnerd were still live on Facebook after 1 a.m. By then, much of the Electionland energy had died down. One of the remaining remnants — a quiet call on Twitter for West Coast voters to #stayonline.

To me, the purpose of Electionland is to incentivize an acquiescent American public in taking control of their democratic right to vote. The best way to push back against passive non-engagement is to embolden the non-engaged by giving them an outlet to engage with.

Throughout Election Day, Electionland’s Outreach Desk raked in Tweets, questions, comments, random and useless links from a bevy of users and voters who wanted to help improve democracy. Participation is contagious. I told friends and family members about the project and on Election Day my phone was buzzing with texts about long lines in Parkchester and Bed-Stuy, and requests for early Election results — I’m sorry, apparently no one could foresee President Trump.

Electionland is journalism at its best. Nudging people out of non-engagement is easier to do when people are presented with the option to participate. Instead of embodying the cool, detached demeanor often prescribed to folks in the media, Electionland asked for the public’s attention and communicated back to them.