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Task Force Informs Voters of the Hows, Whens, Wheres of Casting Ballots

By Kevin Frazzini | Oct. 20, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

U.S. voters can be forgiven for feeling anxious and confused about the upcoming election.

Given the likelihood of last-minute changes to the voting process, like the ones many voters faced in the 2020 primaries, the lack of clear communication about absentee and mail voting timetables, and the ongoing concern about disinformation campaigns being waged by Russia and other foreign actors, who can blame them?

“Even the most conscientious voters struggle to find clear information when they seek it,” states a new report from the nonpartisan Voters Communications Task Force, which is working to make voting easier by providing, and helping others to distribute, trustworthy information. The group includes Google Vice President Vint Cerf, former Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, former Delaware Governor Jack Markell, and other elected officials and nonprofit leaders. It’s supported by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

“We offer a trustworthy clearinghouse for accurate information about when, where and how to vote,” says Tiffany Shackelford, director of the USC researchers and staffers involved with the task force.

Voters once relied on local news sources, especially newspapers, for those details. But many of those trusted sources have been merged with other outlets or have disappeared altogether, leaving many voters to rely on social media for details on candidates and polling places. The situation is especially challenging for new and young voters.

I believe the response has been so positive in part because we have a state and local focus. —Tiffany Shackelford, Voter Communications Task Force

Nationwide, 58% of voters younger than 35 said they were unfamiliar with the mail and absentee ballot deadlines in their state, according to a NextGen America survey cited in the task force report. And, according to a recent Common Sense/SurveyMonkey poll, only about a quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds say they are “very confident” about where to get unbiased information on the issues (24%) and candidates (25%). Even among voters 65 and older, those portions top out at 40%, according to the poll.

“The deficit in trustworthy voter communications at the state and local level, where the specifics of voting vary county by county, is an issue that is too often overlooked,” the report states.

The group’s strategy is two-fold: First, it’s providing a state-by-state resource that voters can access directly through its website; second, it’s bolstering the efforts of lawmakers and organizations to keep voters informed by identifying and helping others “implement the best ways to communicate reliable information to already registered voters.”

“Our audience is state and local governments, policymakers, civic organizations and news outlets that are trying to get trusted information to voters,” Shackelford says, noting that “partners have shared the report with employees, volunteers, civic and advocacy organizations, clients and trusted networks through internal tools, email, newsletters, public websites and/or social media.”

The group created a social media toolkit, for example, with graphics that are free for anyone to use in sharing reliable voting information.

“We’ve also sent the report to thousands of state and local media” outlets, Shackelford says.

In addition to a trove of resources, including research on the Current Voter Information Landscape and an Election Crisis Communication Plan, the task force report offers several general suggestions for lawmakers and organizations trying to get voting information to the public:

1. Understand the state and local civic organization landscape and communication channels to make best recommendations. Nationwide, ballots vary by county and every state has different requirements about when and how its residents can vote by mail. Educating voters is not only a state-by-state task but also a hyperlocal endeavor. The group offers replicable state outreach plans.

2. Create alliances with technical platforms, associations, retail and national media outlets to push out basic voter communications across states throughout the country. The task force lists many organizations whose work can be of use in disseminating voting information.

3. Use multiple communication channels to push out voter information:

  • Local news outlets.
  • Public, private and community organizations.
  • Digital initiatives.
  • Text messages and other push alerts.
  • Paid or free advertising.

Shackelford says the response to the task force’s work has been positive.

“We’ve been working with hundreds of groups in different sectors across the U.S.,” she says. “There has been an enthusiastic willingness to share and promote our work. I believe the response has been so positive in part because we have a state and local focus, and because we are trying to help amplify the great work being done.”

Kevin Frazzini is an editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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