Narrow Margin project investigates voter suppression, disinformation ahead of 2020 election

The new series is a collaboration between a UW-Madison investigative reporting class and Wisconsin Watch

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Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism student Kynala Phillips, left, attends J420, an investigative reporting class taught by Wisconsin Watch Managing Editor Dee J. Hall, on Feb. 6. The class is investigating voter suppression, disinformation and election security ahead of the 2020 presidential election. To the right are students Chelsea Hylton, Francisco Velazquez, Johnny Bassett and Peter Kane.

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In April 2016, students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison got Facebook invitations to a protest, promoted with the hashtag, #StopPoliceTerror.

Around the same time, Twitter user “Gunslinger Girl” was tweeting praise for presidential candidate Donald Trump. The account showed a young woman, purportedly from Wisconsin, wearing a T-shirt depicting the Statue of Liberty raising an assault rifle into the air. 

What do these incidents have in common? The first one is a fake event; the second is a fake person — both creations of the Internet Research Agency. This “troll factory” operated on behalf of the Russian government to boost Trump and drum up unrest in swing states, including Wisconsin. 

In a newly launched investigation, a UW-Madison investigative reporting class led by Wisconsin Watch Managing Editor Dee J. Hall is examining voter suppression and disinformation efforts in Wisconsin’s 2020 election.

The project is called Narrow Margin, a reference to the margin in Wisconsin of less than 1 percentage point, or 23,000 votes, that elevated Trump to the presidency in 2016. 

Narrow Margin will investigate the security of voting systems, as well as suppression and disinformation aimed at voters in Wisconsin — a state that could determine the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Public engagement and participation are crucial components of this project; read about how you can get involved below.

Wisconsin was a top target of voter suppression, misleading candidate messaging, dark money groups and hacking aimed at disrupting the 2016 election.

Expect more of the same in 2020, says UW-Madison journalism professor Young Mie Kim, whose research into disinformation and voter suppression was cited in the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian election interference. Kim predicts there will be foreign election interference or disinformation campaigns in battleground states ahead of the 2020 elections — including Wisconsin.

Although details are scant, intelligence officials have warned House lawmakers that Russia is already interfering in the 2020 campaign, the New York Times reported last week. Officials said that the 2016 tactic of impersonating Americans was being replaced by an emphasis on getting Americans to repeat disinformation, to circumvent social media companies’ bans on “inauthentic speech.” Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported on indications that the Russians were aiding the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders as part of an effort to interfere with the Democratic contest.

Stories from the Narrow Margin series will be published and distributed by Wisconsin Watch to news outlets across the state and nation. Narrow Margin will investigate: 

  • False information aimed at influencing voters’ choices or suppressing their votes.
  • The security of Wisconsin’s voting systems and communities or states that have the best security.
  • The impact of ongoing litigation aimed at deactivating more than 200,000 people from the state’s voter registration system. 
  • Access to the polls, including any difficulties in obtaining proper identification.
  • Unique barriers faced by college student voters in Wisconsin. 

“Voting is the lifeblood of democracy — if people can’t vote, we can’t have a democracy,” said Sam Buisman, a student-journalist on the project. “I think that every citizen has a responsibility and an obligation to protect voting. I view it as not just my duty as a journalist, but as my civic duty to help contribute to the Narrow Margin project.”

Students have interviewed experts on disinformation, voter suppression and election security. They are reaching out to voters to find out what types of messages they are receiving from candidates and dark money groups.

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Students from a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism class listen to a presentation by Reid Magney, public information officer for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, on Feb. 6.

“This class is teaching us how to do political reporting in an accurate way and how important factual journalism is in the world of politics and elections,” says Francisco Velazquez, a member of the investigative reporting class and a Wisconsin Watch reporting intern. “This is the first journalism course I’ve taken that’s dealing with a topic in real time. We’re actually covering something that’s going to affect how people view the upcoming elections.”

Wisconsin Watch is the news outlet of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit organization whose mission is “to increase the quality, quantity and understanding of investigative journalism to foster an informed citizenry and strengthen democracy.”

Wisconsin Watch is partnering with national media organizations including Guardian US, APM/Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica’s Electionland Project. 

In addition, First Draft, a nonprofit that trains journalists to identify and report about disinformation, is providing training and technical assistance. 

Funding from the Ira and Ineva Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment supports the Center’s collaborations with student investigative projects. 

“One of my biggest concerns is that these issues aren’t just isolated to Wisconsin,” Buisman says. “There are nationwide efforts to prevent people from participating in democracy. I want people to read the work that we do and get inspired to protect voting and to preserve a right that we often take for granted.”

Previous student-generated projects published by Wisconsin Watch include The Cannabis Question, an examination into what would happen if Wisconsin were to legalize marijuana; Undemocratic: Secrecy and Power vs. The People, which documented the waning influence of regular citizens on the state’s democracy; Broken Whistle, which examined declining protections for whistleblowers in Wisconsin; and Failure at the Faucet, a national award-winning investigation of threats to the quality of the state’s drinking water.

Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch

Wisconsin Watch Managing Editor Dee J. Hall teaches J420, an investigative reporting class at UW-Madison, on Feb. 6. This year’s class is working on Narrow Margin, an investigation focused on voter suppression, disinformation and election security ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

How you can get involved: The class is looking for people who have been affected by voter suppression, intimidation efforts, disinformation or interference of any kind and are willing to share their story. We want to hear your stories and amplify voices that often go unheard.

Did you have a hard time getting the proper ID to vote? Have you seen misleading information about how or where to vote? Have you been discouraged from voting by threats of criminal prosecution or other intimidation? 

Are you on the list of voters targeted to be removed from the rolls

Have you seen false information about candidates or issues? 

Do you notice unfamiliar news organizations popping up on your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds? 

There are many ways you can reach out to us for this project. To offer a suggestion to the reporters or become a potential source for a story in the series, you can:

  • Write to narrowmargintips@wisconsinwatch.org
  • Write to WCIJ, Fifth Floor, Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave., Madison, WI 53706 
  • Call or text our Narrow Margin phone number: 608-571-4669
  • (If your input is sensitive) Contact us via Signal, a free messaging app for iPhone and Android that provides end-to-end encryption for messages and calls and does not collect any metadata. Our Narrow Margin Signal number is +1 608-571-4669
  • Fill out this Google Form with your story

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