Signage at an early voting center on Sept. 23, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
It’s no secret: U.S. democracy is under serious threat.
Politicians use rigged maps to entrench themselves in power, allowing them to ignore the will of voters. Hundreds of members of Congress, state lawmakers, and top state officials — including chief elections officials — deny the results of the last presidential contest. And a leading candidate for 2024 talks openly about abusing the power of the federal government to retaliate against his political opponents.
“No longer can we take for granted that people will accept election results as legitimate,” warned a recent report by the Safeguarding Democracy Project, a committee of election experts convened by the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. “The United States faces continued threats to peaceful transitions of power after election authorities (or courts) have declared a presidential election winner.”
No surprise, then, that more than 8 in 10 respondents to a recent poll said they were worried about the state of American democracy, with 1 in 4 saying they’re very worried.
But much of the media is failing to convey the danger.
At the first Republican presidential debate last month, not a single question was asked about democracy.
Even when the subject is given attention, it’s often treated in the same way journalists cover fights over more traditional issues like taxes, health care, or education: Reporters quote both sides — those looking to restrict democracy, and those working to protect it — assess the political implications, and perhaps lament our growing “polarization”.
A growing number of newsrooms are recognizing that this approach doesn’t meet the moment. Democracy is different from those other issues, because it underlies all of them. Without a healthy democracy, voters can’t make collective decisions that have legitimacy, no matter the issue. Nor can Americans count on having a free press to cover the debate.
That’s why a drive is underway to help bolster the foundations of our system through “pro-democracy” coverage. On Friday, States Newsroom joins 135 news organizations for Democracy Day 2023, a nationwide pro-democracy reporting collaborative, launched last year, that’s organized by Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media in New Jersey and the Institute for Nonprofit News.
The pro-democracy coverage that participating newsrooms will produce can take a range of forms. It might be journalism that shines a light on the most urgent threats to democracy and holds anti-democratic actors accountable.
But it also can be journalism that gives citizens the tools they need to participate in the process; or that explains how local government works and helps people access needed services; or that uplifts the ordinary Americans working to protect and strengthen democracy.
“It doesn’t have to be negative and only focus on the threats,” said Beatrice Forman, a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer and Democracy Day’s project coordinator. “Pro-democracy journalism can also focus on solutions to those threats: Who are the people on the ground doing things to enfranchise people and to make people feel comfortable exercising their civic rights?”
Here are just a few of the stories that States Newsroom’s 36 outlets have produced for Democracy Day:
- The Alabama Reflector is digging into a voting conundrum: Why is the state’s turnout rate sliding — it averaged just under 50% in the last two national elections — even as the number of Alabamians on the voter rolls has increased?
- The Kansas Reflector is asking how campaigns and election officials can ensure young voters stay engaged. They turned out in high numbers for an August referendum on abortion rights, the Reflector notes, but many then stayed home in November.
- The Michigan Advance looks at the impact of the state’s major voting rights expansion since 2018, which has included same-day voter registration, no-excuse mail voting and more. Advocates of expanded access to the ballot say they aren’t finished yet.
- The Nebraska Examiner is showing readers how their government works, breaking down the functions of the state’s executive branch and spotlighting the decision-makers running key departments.
- NC Newsline is helping North Carolinians exercise their democratic rights, by explaining how to ensure the voting experience goes smoothly now that the state’s voter ID law is in effect.
- And the Pennsylvania Capital-Star is highlighting how the state’s closed primary system — in which only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote — leaves out over 1 million registered voters. What could be more democratic, Capital-Star Editor Kim Lyons asks, than opening the process of choosing candidates to more people?
It may be only one day. But Democracy Day aims to kick-start a more permanent shift in approach.
The goal, said Forman, “is to really catalyze an industry-wide transformation towards content that doesn’t treat politics like a game, doesn’t cater to political insiders, (but instead) caters to actual people wanting to know more about how their government works.”
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