Covering Elections Changes With Technology

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Another Election Day approaches. Voters who did not cast early ballots will go to the polls to decide a number of contested state and local races, as well as two important propositions concerning Northeast Texas Community College, a valuable regional resource. Once again, after a hiatus of a decade or so, I’ll be working to get out a paper once the polls close and the results are known. This will be fun.

I covered my first election as a journalist — and not just as the photographer — down in San Augustine, which is deep Behind the Pine Curtain. I was 26 and fresh out of graduate school at UT. After reading a Richard West story in Texas Monthly about that little town and its feisty editor, Sam Malone, I called him up and tasked for  a job. I desperately wanted to escape a stupefying job in Austin as a PR flack for the Texas Air Control Board. Sam had recently sold The Rambler to an earlier iteration of the company for whom I now work, and they needed a managing editor.  Turns out the only person I was managing was myself, since there were no other employees. A few months later I became editor and publisher and began this long, strange trip of community newspapering. Sam still operated a print shop in the same building with the paper, and he became my mentor and friend.

In 1982, Democrats swept the statewide races, from Mark White taking back the governorship to Jim Hightower, a former editor of the Texas Observer, winning the agriculture commissioner’s race. San Augustine was a yellow-dog Democrat county back then, like most of East Texas, so I don’t recall there being any contested local races in November. Now it’s the other way around in many counties, though Titus County continues to have a number of contested races in general elections.

I unabashedly favor contested races in all elections. It is good for democracy, and it is good for advertising, which is how we keep the lights on around here.

This was more than a decade before the Internet would revolutionize how we receive and disburse information. On election night, a large blackboard was erected on the courthouse square with the candidates in each race, from governor down to county surveyor listed on the left. Up top were displayed the dozen or so voting boxes. A string of light bulbs hung above to illuminate the board. As the results were counted by hand, box-by-box, someone would post them in chalk on that board. A couple hundred folks usually showed up to find out how the races were going, especially in the Democratic primaries, where the local races invariably drew a gaggle of candidates.

For the next 25 years or so, I helped put out a paper every election night. Once we started using computers to lay out pages, in the late 1980s, I would create the front page in advance, figuring out which race would go where. A favorite parlor game of the newsroom was writing headlines in advance, predicting the outcome of each race. “Smith ousts Jones in judge’s race.” “Brown wins in a squeaker.”

Often as not I was completely wrong. Despite having done this for more than half of my life, I remain nearly as bad at calling election races as I am on the football pick ’ems we run each week. But it was fun to see how many races I got right. I plan to revive that tradition Tuesday afternoon, as I again build a front page primarily — if not solely — devoted to election results.

This election night, we will post results on our website as they are put up on the board at the election building, an indoor version of what I first encountered in San Augustine more than 30 years ago. We will also post links to the results on our Facebook page, which has nearly 5,000 followers and grows every week. And we will tweet results as well, taking advantage of these new ways of immediately getting the results to as wide an audience as possible.

Elections matter. It really does make a difference who we elect to office, and how we vote on matters such as the NTCC bond issue and Proposition One to fund our state’s beleaguered highway system.

Every vote really does count. In 2008, when I was publisher of the Longview paper (and didn’t have to lay out the front page, though I kinda wanted to), a $266 million bond issue that entirely changed the physical face of the Longview school district passed by just 16 votes out of several thousand. One way of looking at this is if nine of those who voted had instead cast ballots against the bonds, it would have failed. Or if 17 more people who opposed it had shown up at the polls, it would have failed as well.

So go vote if you haven’t already.


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