Judicial primary elections are some of the most important, but least followed, elections. Since 2016, Injustice Watch has sought to fill this information gap by providing critical information that’s unavailable anywhere else about candidates running for judge in Cook County, one of the largest unified court systems in the country. We combed newspaper records, searched property histories, looked up lawsuits, analyzed campaign contributions, and synthesized the recommendations from local bar associations. Our 2020 Guides – published on March 1 and October 1, made all of this information easily accessible to the public in a clean, sleek digital format, minimizing extraneous
Most news organizations don’t invest the resources necessary to provide voters with comprehensive information about the more than 100 candidates for the bench. Once elected, the more than 400 judges in Cook County make decisions that affect people’s lives, including the ability to take away someone’s freedom, interpret or overturn state laws, and correct or perpetuate injustices. And it is very difficult to unseat a sitting judge; it’s only happened once in the last two decades. These are, historically, very low-information races. Our work aims to increase engagement around judicial elections with the hope that it will result in a more just and qualified judiciary.
The impact of #CheckYourJudges 2020 has been extraordinary. More Cook County voters participated in judicial retention races this year than in any election in the past three decades. Although participation in the retention races has generally trended upward since at least 1990, when less than half of voters, on average, made a choice in the judicial races, last year, seven in 10 voters, on average, voted in the 60 Cook County retention elections.
Moreover, voters cared. They kicked out one judge up for retention whom we had reported on extensivelt and brought four others to the brink, marking the second election in a row that a Cook County judge lost a retention bid. In contrast, not a single judge lost retention between 1992 and 2016.
The March primary guide was used online by more than 76,000 people, or about 10 percent of those who cast a ballot.The November general election guide reached nearly a quarter of a million online users between early October and Election Day. In comparison, less than 70,000 visitors accessed the guide in the month leading up to the last general election in fall 2018.
The guides aim to recreate a ballot, using the same terminology, ordering of candidates and races. They use intuitive icons to signal important top-level information about candidates. The primary guide contains multiple geolocation features to allow voters to find their judicial district. Each guide includes a comprehensive profile of each candidate, including histories, bar association ratings, and connected news stories. The guide allows users to record their votes & create a custom guide to bring to the polling station.
Our goal was to maximize the audience that could use this guide and that could fully participate in this democratic exercise. Thus each guide and related reporting was produced in both English and Spanish. Accessibility features included labeling and alt text for screen readers for sight impaired users; fully use with just a keyboard for people who have motor disabilities; and full accessibility for people with different devices and levels of internet access. The guide is also a fully installable PWA (Progressive Web App).
For users with data enabled mobile device, users can vote for candidates in our guide and then take their phones to the polls and the guide will remember their votes. For users with mobile devices without data, guide works offline and can be installed just like an app. Users can choose their candidates, and then bring their phones to the polls without any data connection and still access guide. For users without mobile devices, the guide can be used on any computer. Users can make their choices, and then customize and create a PDF version of the guide which includes their votes, which can then be printed and brought to the polls.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The most difficult part of the project from an institutional perspective was the traditionally low level of information available to Cook County voters about judges, and the correspondingly low level of voter engagement. The challenge was to create a guide and accompanying journalism that informed and engaged our audience about a critically important group of public officials that generally fly under the media radar. Thus audience engagement in a range of forms was a critical part of our efforts to maximize the impact of the guides.
The most difficult part of the project from a data journalism perspective was creating a data structure flexible enough to accommodate complex election and candidate information, and to ensure the data entry interface was able to receive input from reporters, editors, and volunteers with different levels of technical proficiency. This entire data structure also needed to be translated into Spanish by third-party translators.In addition, we thought through all the different ways we expected our readers to vote, and tried to answer all their needs with a reader-centered design and several different technologies, including full offline functionality and on-the-fly PDF generation on the web .We also worked hard to include accessibility features including screen-reader labels in English and Spanish, and keyboard-only operation for motor-impaired readers.
Because of the hard deadline imposed by the elections, orchestrating this high-tech collaboration, with the added wrinkle of a pandemic forcing remote work, was a significant challenge for a micro newsroom. Our team rose to that challenge for both the primary and general elections, providing invaluable voter information that was not otherwise available in an accessible format.
What can others learn from this project?
The takeaway is 1. perceiving a need, and 2. seizing an opportuinity. A micro newsroom with a well-defined mission like Injustice Watch can make a meaningful contribution to the democratic process if it identifies an important gap in public information to fill. In such a case, it can strategically marshal its resources to compete with larger newsrooms on content, multimedia technology, and impact. In an era in which traditional local newspapers have long been in decline, this is a critical message to communicate to journalists.