Eric Douglas Published

Online Voter’s Guide Covers Mountain State

People lines up to vote
West Virginia's Primary Election is Tuesday. Stock

Newspapers traditionally produced voter’s guides for local and regional races, helping voters understand what the candidates stand for. As papers have declined, those guides have gone away. 

But now, nonprofit newsroom Mountain State Spotlight has created a statewide voter’s guide. News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Editor in Chief Ken Ward to get the details. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Let’s talk for just a second big picture election. This election is billed as a monumental one. What are you seeing in this election? 

Ward: This is obviously a very important election. Folks smarter than me seem to think there’s some national race that’s really important. 

But in West Virginia, we have a senator retiring and an open US Senate seat. We have an open governor’s office, a whole slate of people in the Board of Public Works, lots of legislative races. And what people sometimes forget is some really important races in West Virginia get decided in May — nonpartisan judicial races, Supreme Court, the Intermediate Court race is very hot. And of course, school boards on the county level get decided in May. So it’s a really important election, lots of things that are on the line.

Douglas: Local elections really are more important to the average person, or should be more important than the presidential races. Those have a more intimate effect on your life than those big races.

Ward: A number of municipalities in West Virginia have council and mayor’s races. Local government still is meat and potatoes stuff that people need. And I think that all politics ultimately is local, as they say, so there’s lots of important things on the ballot for West Virginians to be paying attention to.

Douglas: We unfortunately don’t pay as close attention to as we used to either. 

Ward: It’s no secret that newspapers have been in the decline for a long time. It’s been a hard couple of decades for the business model. West Virginia is really fortunate to still have a lot of vibrant, local, weekly and daily newspapers, Ogden with newspapers all over the state, the HD Media chain, so West Virginia is very fortunate. But at the same time, there’s been a pretty steep decline in the resources that go toward covering basic, important local politics and statewide politics. Across the state, there’s a void of information. 

Mountain State Spotlight was formed to try to fill some of that void. I think we’re fortunate to see the public media space still strong here. I think that we’re seeing the nonprofit news space evolve in West Virginia, which is a really important aspect of the industry for West Virginians. But still, there’s a lot of voids there. And those really become evident around election time. 

Douglas: Newspapers used to produce large voter’s guides. 

Ward: That’s one of the voids that we set out to fill was that void of basic information about elections. In 2022, our Managing Editor Erica Peterson, designed and produced our first ever voter guide for the general election in November. And it was a pretty basic thing. It was right on our website, basically a sample ballot of who’s on your ballot when you go to vote on Election Day, broken down by county photos, basic information about the candidates release, just like simple civic information.

We were just floored by the response that it got. One-fifth of the West Virginians who voted in the midterms that year used some part of our voter guide. I think we had at least 100 readers of the voter guide in each of the state’s 55 counties. We were really amazed by that. 

In a state with really bad broadband and an older population, one-fifth of the voters needed to use our website to figure out who they were gonna see on the ballot. 

Douglas: So you did it bigger and better this year? 

Ward: Many, many, many hours sorting through information from the Secretary of State’s office, from counties. It’s 1800 candidates. We have photos for many, but not all of them. We have links to biographies and social media accounts. And it’s organized by county. For state races, national races, local races.It also has basic information about how and where and when to vote, which we think is very helpful. And so far, it’s getting a lot of readership. We have plans to make it even bigger and better for November, and bigger and better in two years. And in four years. This is obviously a core function of those of us who are journalists. What more important thing is there for us to do except help people know what their choices are. 

Douglas: Shifting gears a little bit, the turnout, unfortunately, in primary races is dismal, usually under 20 percent or so, even on a presidential cycle. How do we increase those rates?

Ward: One thing that is kind of interesting is some of these races that are nonpartisan are on the ballot for the primary. And I don’t really know the history of why that is. But wouldn’t it improve participation in those important races like the state Supreme Court, or the Intermediate Court or circuit judges? Wouldn’t it improve that participation if those were on the ballot in November for the general election? 

I think the other thing that we’re working very hard on, there’s polarization. There’s the vitriol of campaigns these days. That really is kind of tearing apart the fabric of the community sometimes. And we’re trying something new and different to change that called the citizens agenda. It’s been used in other states, a number of smart journalism professors and other organizations came up with it. And it’s built around the idea for us at Mountain State Spotlight that the election should be more about West Virginians than about race horse coverage or public opinion polls, or 30 second ad spots. It should really be about West Virginians and their communities and what they need. So we’re going out and asking voters and would-be voters, what do you want to hear candidates talking about, as they are asking for your vote. And when you approach it that way, you find out all sorts of fascinating things. 

You find out, for example, that on the local level, and communities, West Virginians agree about more things than they disagree. People care about their kids’ school, they care about their local roads, they care about family and friends who need addiction treatment, they care about their local water supply. So we’re going out and asking people, What do you want to hear candidates talking about? And then we’re lifting up those voices by doing stories about those voices. Then we’re taking those questions and giving them to candidates and saying, “hey, people in your district or the district you’d like to represent have these questions, what are your answers?” 

We started prior to the primary, and we’re going to be doing it through now in November, and we’ve made a commitment to our readers, we’re going to interview voters in all 55 counties using this model. Other places that this has worked, it’s reduced polarization. It’s increased voter turnout. I mean, I think we all know that, in the absence of strong local journalism, there’s more corruption, right. There’s more overspending by government. There’s all sorts of problems. And this is a very basic thing we can do to try to help West Virginians reframe the election and reframe campaigns about the things that matter to them, and not the things that matter to career campaign consultants.
Check out Mountain State Spotlight’s Online Voter’s Guide.