The election day disaster that wasn’t

In Tuesday’s print edition of The Sun, my friend and colleague Chuck Witt warned against credulously accepting all information found in media outlets. He cautioned readers to do their own fact-checking.

That’s good advice.

I’ve harped on the dangers of relying too much on social media for information. Sometimes, even mainstream media get it wrong. This is especially true when national media report on local events.

If ever there was an example of why local journalism is still crucial — and why you shouldn’t rely on social media and national media for your local news — this week served to emphasize the point.

By the time you read this, we may know the outcome of some of the races from Kentucky’s primary election this week. Or perhaps not. Regardless of the result, it is clear as I write this column that Tuesday was a victory for Kentucky voters.

But if you don’t live in our state, you may not know that.

In the days leading up to Kentucky’s primary election, there were several alarmist posts, tweets and news stories circulating nationally about our commonwealth’s first experiment in voting in the COVID-19 era.

The story that emerged on the national scene about Kentucky’s upcoming primary election painted a picture of a looming disaster.

The Washington Post ran a story June 19 that emphasized how our in-person polling places were reduced from 3,700 to less than 200 and predicted significant problems. The story only mentioned as an afterthought that our state was utilizing universal vote-by-mail for the first time — and that voters requested nearly as many absentee ballots as the total number of voters in our last election.

The story was shared via Twitter by a handful of prominent influencers, and soon, other media outlets reported that Kentucky faced impending chaos on election day. There was talk of “voter suppression” — despite the fact that Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams worked together on voting procedures.

People were asking how all of Jefferson County’s 610,000 registered voters would be able to crowd into the Kentucky Expo Center within 12 hours to vote. They never bothered to check with local officials to see that nearly half of them had already voted by Monday.

There were indeed a few hiccups. There were long lines at times in Lexington and Louisville. The 6 p.m. poll closing time had to be extended — by a court injunction — in Louisville.

But overall, it went remarkably well. There was nothing like the problems suffered in other states, notably Wisconsin and Georgia.

The narrative of chaos proved mostly false.

One lesson to be learned from this is to recognize how all media — from traditional newspapers and electronic outlets to bloggers and social media — sometimes suffer from the “bandwagon effect.” Once a narrative gets established, new stories appear that further the narrative.

Another is to look to local news sources for local events. Kentucky media largely avoided the panicked reporting. They understood the historic nature of the election and the fact that the majority of primary voters had already cast their ballots well before election day.

There were also lessons for Kentucky officials.

So-called “no excuse” absentee voting and early voting should be permanent fixtures. We now have seen that these measures work and that they increase voter participation.

In-person voting should be extended past 6 p.m. permanently, and while we don’t need nearly as many polling places as before (assuming expanded absentee voting), we probably need more than one per town or city.

Kentucky’s leaders had to scramble to quickly put together a plan to allow the state’s voters to cast ballots safely in this election due to the pandemic. I think they did a remarkable job.

It was a bipartisan effort, mostly on the part of Beshear and Adams.

If we could come together under these circumstances and put together a successful election in trying times, surely we can figure out a way to do so on a permanent basis.

Finally, for citizens, it pays to support and read local media. If the story is local, the best reporting is almost always local.

This article appeared in The Winchester Sun on June 26, 2020.

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