Anna Pogarcic, editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, knew something wasn’t quite right with the paper’s previous election coverage: It was out of touch with the community.
Inspired by Jay Rosen’s Citizens Agenda, her newsroom partnered with other student publications in North Carolina to understand what students wanted to know about the 2020 election. The result is One Vote NC, a news collaborative to empower students across the state to vote.
The Institute reached out to Pogarcic and her colleague Sonia Rao, The Daily Tar Heel’s city & state editor, to learn more about One Vote NC
How did the idea behind One Vote NC come together?
Pogarcic: By the end of 2019, I had already covered two elections — the 2018 midterms and then our 2019 locals — and something just never really felt right to me. I was always unhappy with the voter guides we ended up making. I never felt like they were doing enough to help people, and I couldn’t figure out why. So I was talking to our newsroom advisor trying to prepare for 2020 because we knew it was going to be this big election, and we wanted to make sure that we were serving our students and our local readers with coverage and reporting that would actually help them with questions they had.
We did some research and we found out about The Citizens Agenda from Jay Rosen up at NYU, and we thought that was a good way that we could at least start out the year. With that in mind, we set out to partner with student groups on campus to host town halls and send out surveys to directly engage and talk to students about what kind of questions they have. Because we really wanted to mobilize them, especially going into 2020 because a lot of college students are first-time voters, or they’re moving and not sure how to vote. We thought that by directly engaging them in our coverage process from the beginning that we could help answer those questions and make sure that they might be more informed and more likely to vote this year.
How were the schools and publications selected to participate?
Pogarcic: We wanted to take a look at geographic diversity and school diversity because we wanted to try to cover as many of the big North Carolina cities and counties as possible to make sure we were serving as many students as possible.
Rao: Anna and I went to a journalism conference at East Carolina University in February, and she had this idea to work with other newsrooms in North Carolina for coverage in the fall. … They were very responsive, which is exciting. Then we got back and COVID happened, so it reached a bit of a lull.
I took over the project in the summer when I became city and state editor. I had to reach out to everyone again — not everyone who was at the conferences is in our collaborative, and not everyone in our collaborative was at the conference. So we created a group, we met, we came up with a name for ourselves called One Vote NC All these things kind of came into place in the last month.
What is the role that journalism plays in your goal to empower students to vote?
Rao: Our biggest goal is just to increase student voter turnout. It’s historically low in North Carolina, and we believe we have the power to change that. I think journalism — especially local journalism — is an integral service in communities, especially in election years. Elections that are covered are often national elections, and students often only care about those national elections, and they often don’t realize that their vote matters even more with local elections. And how local elections influence them. So I hope that this project motivates students to vote and also helps them realize the power of their vote has an impact.
I think it’s even more relevant now in COVID times, because students are already so confused about what the voting processes are. There’s already so much voter suppression going on to suppress the students’ vote, and it’ll be even harder now with students going to school from home, and are maybe not going to vote in the counties that their school is in. We really want to be a resource to help answer these questions for students. To tell students they can vote, let them know how they can vote and also help them navigate who they want to vote for.
Pogarcic: The big thing that I’ve noticed in my time as both a student and a journalist at UNC is that there’s the idea that students are really passionate, into activism and social causes, but they don’t necessarily have the same access to information about how all these processes work behind the scenes.
So for us, especially with college students in the UNC system, which is the governing body for our state public universities, there has been a lot of controversy over the past few years about the way that they’re governing individual campuses. And I personally noticed a big disconnect between students being angry at the University administration and calling on a chancellor to get replaced, or something like that. I would be sitting here thinking, well, the same people who appointed this chancellor are going to appoint the next one, and the people who appoint the chancellor are appointed by our state representatives. And I was like, do these students know who their state representative is? Are they informed about state elections? That’s a big part where I think journalism comes into play where we can really serve a role is helping people understand the connection between things that they care about in their daily lives and then how they can actually make an impact on that.
What’s unique about the NC voting landscape, especially in the COVID era?
Pogarcic: North Carolina is becoming a really big swing state. I know our demographics have changed a lot in the last 10 years. We also have a lot of important races coming through this year — we have a governor’s race, we have one of our Senate seats up for election. And in the presidential race, nobody really knows what’s going to happen. So that’s really exciting. We’re trying to use that attention to those bigger national races to also draw more attention to local races, and even statewide races that people maybe don’t pay as much attention to.
North Carolina is also unique in the sense that — I’m not sure what other states’ policies are — but for North Carolina, you can register to vote where you go to college, even if you don’t live there permanently or even if you’re from out of state. So I think a really big question that a lot of students have is where should I register to vote? Where does my vote matter the most based on what I care about? We’re trying to help people make that informed decision.
Are you targeting any projects or efforts around voter suppression through the collaborative?
Pogarcic: At UNC Chapel Hill, we had a polling site on campus in the primary, but I don’t think we will for the general election, which is a really big deal. And then for previous years our campus was split into five different precincts, which is very strange and confusing to students who live on campus. I know that that’s an issue that a lot of our partner campuses are dealing with as well. NC A&T out in Greensboro, their campus was split directly in half for congressional seats, which is also equally confusing. This is definitely a big focus of our coverage that we’re going to also try to use our resources and partner together to work on.
College students are vulnerable in the sense that they’re new to the voting scene and elections. And it’s a complicated process — that if you don’t really know what you’re doing or know where to get the right information, you could easily get confused or just be misinformed or directly manipulated.
What has the response been so far?
Rao: The response has been amazing. On August 1, we launched our website and our Twitter account. And I think we got 300 followers in the first few days. And our first tweet got over 100 retweets. It was really a really overwhelming response from both the journalism community in North Carolina but also students, teachers and faculty members at all of our different schools. It made me really excited. It made me feel really inspired. It made me really happy that people cared about what we were doing and that people are interested and that, hopefully, we will be able to make a difference.
What are you most excited about?
Rao: On August 1, all of the newsrooms sent a message to the general assembly candidates in their counties. Over the summer, we sent separate surveys for each school to figure out what their own students wanted to see from their election coverage. We used those survey responses to come up with five questions. Every school’s questions were different.
So on August 1, we emailed those five questions to all of the candidates for general assembly in our counties. And we are going to be publishing those responses in the statewide voter guide in September on our website. We’ll also be publishing on Twitter. The reason that we’re focusing on the general assembly is because a lot of students don’t know that the North Carolina General Assembly elects Board of Governors members, and the Board of Governors dictates the whole UNC system. It’s really a direct impact from the general assembly to UNC students, and that’s a connection that is often missed. All of the schools in our collaborative except for Duke are in the UNC System. So it’s a huge, huge connection. Our goal is to help students realize, ‘Hey these people have a huge impact on me. What can I do about it?’
We also are in the beginning phases of holding a town hall. It’ll be over Zoom probably, and we’ll invite two candidates for a statewide race to come and have students ask their questions and hear directly from the candidate.
Pogarcic: I’m just excited to see students’ reactions. When we had a town hall earlier this year, we talked directly to some students to see where their gaps are and how The Daily Tar Heel can help. They told us that they wish we had a more accessible voter guide, some more multimedia options. So I know this year we’re planning a fully digital voter guide. Sonia is planning a podcast. I’m really excited to see our readers’ reactions to the fact that we listen to them and are acting based on their feedback, but I’m also just really excited to see what they do with the answers that we get from candidates.
I hope that this shows, especially to statewide candidates, that college students do care. And they just need to be empowered and shown the ropes in terms of getting into elections. But I just hope that this shows college students that elections are important and you can hold your elected officials accountable just by showing up and by asking them the questions that you have. At the end of the day, they have to serve the voters, and as long as you’re a voter, they have to serve you too.