September 7, 2022
21 More Tips for Telling Our Story Before the November Elections
This guide (PDF) is available for download:
Since we released Telling Our Story: An Elections Communication Guide in May, election officials have taken to heart the need to improve communications, and many are trying new and more effective ways to “tell our story.” We promised to update the guide with new examples, and below are some that could inspire your efforts to counter disinformation, inform the public and boost confidence in elections.
Get Help from The Elections Group
The Elections Group is providing tailored communications assistance to election officials free of charge through its Communications Resource Desk. Available support includes guidance on writing effective press releases, working with the media, writing guest columns and developing a crisis communications plan. Templates for posters, handouts and social media graphics explaining the elections process are also available to download or request for customization.
Promoting Elections and Those Who Run Them
We have emphasized the need to humanize the people who run our elections to help counter negative — and often false — messages many voters receive about the elections process. As noted in the guide, factual information is important, but emotional appeals can sometimes be more effective at changing minds.
Faces of Democracy
The non-profit group Issue One launched a new effort in June that embraces this approach. The Faces of Democracy campaign uses the stories of individual election officials to do two things: encourage lawmakers to provide more protection and funding for election workers, and promote the work they do. Issue One’s Dokhi Fassihian says the goal is to help election officials communicate “with the American public about how elections are run and about what they do and how they do it and why it’s really fair and secure.”
The campaign is being conducted primarily through social media. One video opens with the words “They’re our friend and neighbors” printed across a picture of homes displaying American flags. The video notes that many election officials have faced threats and intimidation simply for doing their jobs, and that they need the public’s support.
“Election workers are us,” the video says, alongside photos of the officials profiled. “They’re yoga teachers, dog moms, music nuts, superfans and #girldads. They’re members of our community and under the hardest conditions they conducted an election that was free, safe, and fair. Now, it’s on us: Protect those who protect our elections.”
Election Office Profiles
There has been a noticeable increase in such election worker profiles and social media campaigns. Many have been produced by local election offices themselves and show how simple such communications can be. For example, Collier County, Florida, has instituted “Meet the Staff Monday.”
I would have liked to see one addition — a clip of Michael playing the guitar! It might seem superfluous, but sometimes the smallest details can help voters relate and remember the message.
Some jurisdictions, such as Maricopa County, Arizona, are producing profiles in both English and Spanish to reach a broader audience, as with this item about a poll worker who is also a Vietnam veteran.
We suggested earlier that jurisdictions could encourage poll workers to write about their experiences for the local newspaper to provide a different perspective, and one that some voters might be more inclined to relate to. Poll worker Fran Larkins wrote this article after working the Primary Election in Stafford County, Virginia. Among her observations: “At this past election, I sometimes felt voters came into the precinct ‘on guard’ for fraud. Please know that the volunteers you see working the polls are often your neighbors and are concerned about protecting our democracy too.”
Several new efforts could prove helpful models as you try to counter election disinformation.
Strength in Numbers
Eleven California counties teamed up recently to form the Coalition of Bay Area Election Officials. The goal is to strengthen their ability to share information with voters and increase public confidence in the system. The coalition has its own website where voters can go to get the latest news, watch videos describing the voting process and read fact sheets about measures taken to protect their ballots. The site includes useful information common to all 11 counties, such as when early voting begins and the deadline for registering to vote.
Evelyn Mendez, public and legislative affairs manager for the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, says one big advantage of the coalition is that larger counties like hers can help smaller counties that might not have the resources to produce the information. That’s especially true when it comes to instructional videos, such as this one about the impact of redistricting:
The coalition has also helped the counties, which share the same media market, to speak with one voice when it comes to voting issues. Mendez believes that consistency helps boost voter confidence. ”I think that’s the biggest benefit is that we can help each other when it comes to the media, because we’re all sharing the same message,” says Mendez. When one jurisdiction posts something on social media, the post is also shared on the coalition’s Facebook page, amplifying the message.
Mendez also notes that coalition members meet weekly, allowing them to exchange ideas about how best to deal with administrative and other issues they have in common.
In Wisconsin, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Counties Association and the Wisconsin Towns Association have also banded together to form the “Build Trust in Elections” coalition. They recently released a second PSA (the first — on trusting local election officials — is noted earlier.) The 30-second ad has three county clerks explaining the steps they and their colleagues take to ensure that votes are accurately counted.
Spreading the message even further, a local TV station in La Crosse published a story about the campaign and the appearance of County Clerk Ginny Dankmeyer in the ad. The news story not only reinforced the ad campaign, but allowed Dankmeyer to elaborate: “It’s just a way for the election officials who work with elections every day to get out there and go hey, here’s the truth behind what happens with the elections. This is how safe they are. This is how secure they are,” she is quoted as saying.
The story ends with two pieces of advice from Dankmeyer. She says voters with questions should get their information from a trusted source, and people who don’t trust the election process can sign up to be poll workers and see firsthand how the system operates.
Again, strength in numbers. Most Wisconsin towns don’t have the resources to produce such ads on their own, but they all can benefit from the statewide campaign.
Media outlets appear to be publishing a growing number of myth-busting articles, usually with the input of local election officials — one of many reasons to develop a good working relationship with your local media and why we say “the media are not your enemy.” These newspaper stories, and similar local TV broadcasts, can reach much larger audiences than anything you might put on your website or social media.
For example, an August 2022 article in the Seward County Independent in Nebraska has County Clerk Sherry Schweitzer debunking seven common voting myths. In the process, the article notes a few personal details about Schweitzer, including her 44-year career in the election office, and her thoughts on how things have changed since 2020. “Never before have I felt that I needed to defend the voting process in Seward County,” she is quoted as saying. The newspaper also notes that this is the first in a four-part series on voter education – a lot of free media for a small election office.
There have also been a lot of myth-busting TV broadcasts, often involving a tour of local election operations, like this one out of Ventura County, California. What’s nice about this story is that the tour itself helps to illustrate the county’s security measures.
“To prove his point, [County Registrar Mark] Lunn accompanied a Spectrum News reporter on a tour through the area where ballots are received and counted at the registrar’s office. In fact, by protocol, the reporter had to be accompanied. Very few people are allowed into this secure area and any visitors must be approved and escorted by an elections employee.”
Support from Trusted Outsiders
There are many other allies you can turn to in your fight against disinformation. A new report by a group of conservative Republicans, including election attorney Ben Ginsberg and former federal judge Michael Luttig, includes a detailed analysis of the main fraud allegations in 2020 and how they do not hold up under scrutiny. Lost, Not Stolen breaks down the allegations by state — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and would be especially helpful for officials in those states. The report might hold more credibility with some voters because it comes from a reputable group of lifelong conservatives.
We are all grappling with what makes the most effective messages when it comes to boosting the public’s trust in elections. New research reinforces earlier findings mentioned in the guide. Messages that emphasize positive, nonpartisan steps taken to secure our elections seem to have the most impact in convincing voters they can trust the results.
A recent survey commissioned by the Brennan Center found that voter confidence rose among those who were “not confident” in election results after they were told about safeguards such as the monitoring of drop boxes and the routine removal of “dead people” from the rolls. One of the top messages that increased confidence among doubters was that “bipartisan teams are present any time mail ballots are handled, including when they are processed and counted.” The survey also found that the messengers most trusted by doubting voters include military members and veterans, friends or family members and small business owners.
Surveys by the Voting Rights Lab also found that public confidence in ballot counting improved significantly after voters heard positive, nonpartisan statements such as “political candidates can challenge election results. But our system requires proof and following the law.” The group found that appealing to values such as freedom and independence had much more impact than negative messages, such as claims that restrictive voting laws threaten democracy.
Working with the Media
As noted above, there are many recent examples of election officials working with local media to dispel misinformation. They are also working together to educate the public about the process, which makes voters less likely to believe mis- or disinformation. We encourage you to do even more, in large part because it’s good, free publicity.
Give a Tour
Give a member of the local media a private tour of your operations to show how the voting process works, or invite them to tag along on a public tour. This story about how votes are counted in Nevada County, California, is refreshing because it’s told through the eyes of several different election workers, including temps, reinforcing the message that elections are run by people in the community and the process is transparent.
Watch Us Test the Machines
We’ve also seen more news reports showing election officials conducting “logic and accuracy tests.” (Again, I think that term is not the most public friendly. You might want to simply call them “tests.”) The Brainerd Dispatch published this story from Crow Wing County, Minnesota, which includes a three minute video of County Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson describing the testing process.
Since very few voters show up to witness these tests in person, such stories help spread the word. Make sure your local media outlet knows when the tests are being conducted and that the public is welcome to attend.
More Myth Busting
Many news organizations are now producing fact-checking articles in response to election myths that can spread rapidly online, as noted above. They need your input to help set the record straight. The AP recently published this article in response to a misleading social media post that implied a Clark County, Washington, election worker collecting ballots from voters as they approached a drop box was doing something illegal. As the AP story made clear, this was a legitimate effort to help ensure all voters could submit their ballots before the 8 PM deadline. The video was widely seen on social media sites that routinely spread misinformation. The advantage of working with an organization like AP is that their stories get national distribution.
Remember to get ahead of negative news stories whenever possible. If a crisis is brewing, reach out immediately to those journalists covering the issue to make sure your side of the story is told. If you haven’t developed a relationship with your local media yet, do it it now.
Numerous election offices around the country have stepped up their voter education efforts, as one way to guard against disinformation. The Wisconsin Elections Commission, for example, is launching an initiative this fall that will incorporate videos on the voting process into high school civics and social studies classes. The videos will also be distributed to the public through media outlets. They will cover the basics, such as how to register to vote, what a ballot looks like, absentee voting, how to become a poll worker, and what happens at polling places on Election Day. They will also explain Wisconsin’s highly decentralized voting system.
Use Social Media
Many election officials are also expanding their use of social media to communicate with the public and to reach a wider audience, as we highly recommend. There are several notable examples that are relatively simple and inexpensive.
This one-minute video produced by the Ottawa County, Michigan, election office shows who is allowed in the polling place on Election Day and what they’re allowed to do.
It’s one of a series of instructional posts by the county, including this one aimed at first time voters.
You can also use such posts to engage voters in the process. In one, Champaign County, Illinois, Clerk Aaron Ammons conducts a lottery used to determine the order in which candidates will appear on the November ballot.
Voters can watch as he places two pieces of folded paper in a hat, one for the Democratic Party, the other for Republicans. He then hands the hat to an observer to shake and hold in the air as Ammons picks the first paper (Republicans won!). The video is only a minute-and-a-half long, but allows voters to see a part of the process they might not otherwise have known about.
And here’s a simple eye-catching tweet from the Fairfax County, Virginia, election office reminding voters they need to get a witness signature for their mail ballots to count.
The challenge is to expand your social media presence and reach as many voters as possible.
As with all communications, keep your messages brief, simple and to the point. Use pictures, graphics and video, when possible. And throw in some personality and humor. As our NPR producers used to say all the time when looking for stories — “We need more joy!”
Remember, you’re one American talking to another about something that’s important to all of us. You’re also trying to reach people who are bombarded daily with messages. Make sure yours are the ones they’ll remember and trust.
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