A new Georgia voting law reduced ballot drop box access in places that used them most

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: NPR, Georgia Public Broadcasting, WABE

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-07-27

Language: English

Authors: Huo Jingnan, Koko Nakajima, Daniel Wood, Stephen Fowler/GPB, Sam Gringlas/WABE; Editing by Cheryl W. Thompson


Stephen Fowler is a reporter for GPB News covering state and local politics and the host of the “Battleground: Ballot Box” podcast.
Sam Gringlas is a politics reporter at WABE, covering campaigns, demographics, the state legislature and voting.
Huo Jingnan is a reporter at NPR, curious about how people navigate complex information landscapes and all the actors shaping that journey.
Cheryl W. Thompson is an investigative correspondent for NPR and senior editor overseeing member station investigations.
Daniel Wood is a graphics reporter at NPR.
Koko Nakajima was a graphics editor / developer at NPR and now works at the AP.

Project description:

Georgia lawmakers changed voting laws after the 2020 election, including eliminating drop boxes in certain counties. By compiling location and usage data – including thousands of ballot transfer forms from the 2020 election – and performing geospatial analysis, reporters found that the new law made it harder for many voters in cities and suburbs, often people of color, to access them. These are also the groups that used drop boxes most.

Impact reached:

The digital story received nearly 80,000 views and the radio story nearly 25,000 listens. Other journalists and academic researchers have cited and circulated the story.

* https://publicintegrity.org/politics/elections/who-counts/campaign-to-stamp-out-ballot-drop-boxes/
* https://indianacapitalchronicle.com/2022/11/03/chaos-and-confusion-the-campaign-to-stamp-out-ballot-drop-boxes/
* https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/wmh3.558
* https://twitter.com/willpeeblessmn/status/1552656600808140804?s=46&t=JcI0GxkvqXtEcO2n_NBZ8g
* https://twitter.com/kevintmorris/status/1552664747027357696?s=46&t=JcI0GxkvqXtEcO2n_NBZ8g

Techniques/technologies used:

Geocoding: NPR, WABE and GPB compiled drop box usage data and locations by manually reviewing more than 9,000 collection forms from drop boxes used in the 2020 presidential election. We received 2022 drop box locations from the Georgia Secretary of State. We then used Geocod.io and ArcGIS geocoder to locate the coordinates for each address. For addresses of each voter, we used Census Batch Geocoder, and then Geocodio and ArcGIS to fill in the blanks.

Isochrones and geospatial analysis: For each drop box location, NPR generated travel time maps, or areas in which a voter can travel to the drop box by driving or public transit within given time frames. NPR used [TravelTime](https://traveltime.com/) to generate transit travel time maps and [here.com](https://www.here.com/?cid=Brand-PureBrand-Google-YT-0-Here-AMER-US&utm_source=Google&utm_medium=ppc&utm_campaign=IOT_Paidsearch_GenericProduct_AlwaysOn&utm_term=here%20technologies&gclid=CjwKCAjwq5-WBhB7EiwAl-HEkjchq7W5gk2RRm1NioQaIbo48_OXQXN0KI_aNhjDFNZ7zjX7HnL9kBoC3nsQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds) for driving travel time maps. NPR then overlaid the travel time maps with voter addresses to estimate the minimum time frames it would take for each voter to get to a drop box within their county. NPR used the drop box location data and Georgia’s voter rolls to calculate travel time intervals to drop boxes available in 2020 and 2022 for nearly every voter.

Demographic and socioeconomic analysis: to understand how travel time to a drop box changed for different voter groups, NPR referenced characteristics of each voter including race and ethnicity from the registered voter list from the Georgia secretary of state, the census-tract-level income and ownership data from American Community Survey, and precinct voting data compiled by [The New York Times](https://github.com/TheUpshot/presidential-precinct-map-2020).

Context about the project:

To find the two voters in the story, the two Georgia-based reporters made dozens of cold phone calls to Georgia voters guided by public voting records and also the data analysis run by the DC-based reporter, which indicated neighborhoods most affected by the new law. It is the seamless collaboration between journalists with different skills, access and resources that gives the story depth and color.

The compilation of drop box usage data in the 2020 election is a continuation of work started from Georgia Public Boradcasting’s collaboration with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where reporters requested ballot transfer forms from the secretary of state’s office and county election offices. The team [reported](https://www.ajc.com/politics/drop-box-use-soared-in-democratic-areas-before-georgia-voting-law/N4ZTGHLWD5BRBOUKBHTUCFVOEU/) on drop box usage in four metro-Atlanta counties after compiling drop box usage data in those counties. The manual-labor heavy process laid important groundwork for this story, which itself involves much manual data input for the rest of the state.

We used travel time maps to calculate travel time increments for each voter because we don’t have the financial resources to calculate precise travel time to a drop box for each address. Large-scale geospatial analysis requires substantial computational power and processing time, and we’re grateful that we have our newsrooms’ support.

The story was published during a time when drop boxes were the subject of numerous voter fraud conspiracies, and has attracted attacks and criticism online. Some critiques were partisan, others seemingly arising from spurious inferences of causality. The reporters have felt compelled to [respond](https://twitter.com/stphnfwlr/status/1552635714206064641) and explain on social media.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

Time management juggling short and long term stories: The two Georgia-based reporters found themselves filling daily news one day and trying to meet characters for this long-term project another day, while trying to do data input during the little downtime they had. It was helpful to commit to meeting regularly and keeping good notes to keep the project on track. In our case, reporters met weekly or biweekly with the editor and reporters met at least weekly.

Collaboration between journalists with different skills: the reporting team benefited from complementary skills and access – the DC-based reporter has data journalism skills and GA-based reporters have local access and knowledge. Even if we focus on different aspects of the story, it was important for us to teach others what we know – from explaining what travel time maps are to inside baseball terms of the Georgia legislature. This helped us make sure everyone was asking the right questions for their reporting and were on the same page when we wrote the story together.

Large scale geocoding: Census Batch Geocoder is a great tool and it’s free, but it consistently fails to geocode about 10% of all the addresses. When triangulating between different geocoding services, it’s important to programmatically keep track of which geocoding service processed which address, so journalists can be sure that all addresses get geocoded and also they aren’t spending excess funds on paid geocoding services.

Project links: