This election should remind us how vital and necessary local journalism is to factual reporting. National media outlets routinely fell for stories about topics outside their knowledge base specially crafted by political operates wanting to shape narratives about campaigns.
All one need do is look at Georgia where its Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, won a closely watched Governor’s race against progressive darling Stacey Abrams. National reporters breathlessly reported stories about Kemp engaging in campaign shenanigans to such an extent that progressives are convinced he stole the race. What is most interesting is Georgia reporters never covered the stories or covered them with such a command of the facts that the national implications were shown to be partisan spin.
In South Georgia, national reporters covered the tale of Kemp trying to close black voting precincts in a county, forcing black voters to drive or walk many miles to predominantly white polling locations. The truth? The Democratic county commissioners and Democrat controlled local board of elections hired a consultant to review polling locations for compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The consultant recommended consolidating several locations deemed unfriendly to handicapped voters. The locations were all the Republican precincts that went for Donald Trump. The Democrat majority precincts were not touched.
The Associated Press reported the story of a woman who was denied voter registration because of Georgia’s “exact match” law that requires a voter exactly match their voter registration form to the information on their driver’s license. This voter had a hyphenated last name and she was denied voter registration because she failed to include the hyphen. The truth? She was actually denied voter registration because she had already registered to vote and the computer system flagged her new registration as a duplicate. The Associated Press never corrected the story.
53,000 voters had their voter registration paperwork held up as “pending voters” according to the same Associated Press story. They claim it overwhelmingly impacted minority voters. The truth? There was a surge of minority voter registrations so they were disproportionately affected. But the underlying data tells a different story. Seventy-five percent of the pending voters were placed there because they put down bad social security numbers. Twenty-three percent were actually on the list from the 2014 election and had been submitted by the 2018 Democratic candidate’s own voter registration efforts from 2014. In four years, despite notice from the Secretary of State to the voters that they needed to fix their information, none of those voters ever showed up to fix the information or tried to vote.
National media outlets also reported the Georgia Secretary of State had thrown voters off the election rolls this year. The truth? The Secretary of State is prohibited from removing people from voting rolls in election years. Local elections officials do remove people from the rolls during election years, but only if the voter dies, is convicted of a felony, or is deemed incompetent by a court.
Finally, for the past two months, national outlets have run stories suggesting Kemp has a conflict of interest because he runs Georgia’s elections and is on the ballot. The truth? The Secretary of State runs for office and is on the ballot every four years. No one complained till now. But what about the merits of the allegations?
In Georgia, local boards of election control elections, not the Secretary of State. All the election year complaints about voting equipment, long lines, voters denied the right to vote, etc. are all local issues. The Secretary of State only gets involved once an election is concluded when he becomes the chairman of the state’s election board. Kemp resigned two days after the election to avoid the conflict of interest.
Local media in Georgia got these stories right while national outlets flubbed them. They distorted the facts and got basic facts wrong. The national reporters wanted to build narrative arches with protagonists and villains instead of just giving people the facts. As local news outlets rely more and more on national reporters or fade away, more stories like these will be reported and even more people will distrust the press.