by Alli Weseman
As a global pandemic has sickened millions of Americans amid the backdrop of a historic election, voting rights in the South have long been under attack. While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed voter discrimination and guaranteed everyone a right to vote. That all changed in 2013 when the Supreme Court overturned a pivotal part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder allowing southern states to change their election laws-enacting strict photo ID laws or closing down polling places forcing people to endure long lines to practice their civic duty.
As the South Votes is Scalawag’s response to confusing mainstream coverage of voter suppression in the South. Through their localized coverage, text-based hotline, and weekly video explainers, Scalawag was able to address common questions such as is voting by mail safe, what voter suppression looks like, and how to combat voter intimidation.
Project Goals: Lovey Cooper, Scalawag Managing Editor and the creator behind As the South Votes wanted to represent the South as a whole in their political coverage. She knew the 2020 election season would be monumental. Instead of focusing on handwringing and predications of who was going to win, she decided to focus on organizers own hopes and marks of progress during and after the 2020 election
Tools and Technology: Scalawag used subtext for their text-based hotline where individuals would be able to get their voting questions answered. They built their weekly video series around host Anoa Changa, an Atlanta based movement journalist and retired attorney.
The magazine also partnered with Press On for a virtual two-day town hall event sponsored by PEN America to discuss how journalists are helping to prevent voter disinformation before and after the election. During the town hall they spoke to different organizers in the south about how they are protecting people’s right to vote, registering new voters to using local airwaves to inform people how to vote using absentee ballots. In addition, they used social media platforms such as Instagram to answer commonly asked questions and inform voters about their rights ahead of the 2020 election.
Impact: Bringing on Anoa Changa as their video host to serve as a trusted voice helped Scalawag magazine resonate with their target audience of younger, diverse, and more progressive readers. Prior to serving as the host of Scalawag’s weekly video series, Anoa created and continues to host her podcast “The Way with Anoa,” focusing on current events through “a Black progressive feminist prospective.”
They were able to address common questions that individuals presented to them such as how do they vote using an absentee ballot, what types of government ID are acceptable at polling locations, what should individuals do if they are still in line to vote when polls closed.
Additionally, they saw over 18,000 views on stories posted to the magazine’s social media sites and more people visiting and viewing As the South Votes more than any other informational pages on their website.
Organization background: Scalawag is a journalism and storytelling organization that illuminates dissent, unsettles dominant narratives, pursues justice and liberation, and stands in solidarity with marginalized people and communities in the South. Online, in-person and through our family of engaged members, Scalawag reimagines the roots and futures of the place we call home.
Project Resources: Scalawag brought on two additional reporters to write one to three stories per month and a series/video host to produce one video a week along with managing event duties and text hotline. Managing editor Lovey Cooper dedicated ten additional hours per week to help with editing and video production. As a nonprofit, they used subtext for free for their text-based hotline and created a new landing page on their website. In total, they paid $12,500 in additional staff hours from a designated voting coverage grant funding. Event speaking fees were paid by PEN America, who sponsored their As The South Votes town hall event.
Here’s How it Happened
Here’s What Worked
1. Recognizing the need for civic engagement
Scalawag partnered with Press On for a two-day virtual event series where they gathered journalists and community organizers ahead of the election to fight voter disinformation/misinformation with updates from the frontlines on how they were helping their communities including rural communities cast their ballot during this pivotal election.
2. Implementing a text-based hotline
By having a more interactive component that nearly everyone uses, Scalawag was able to reach more people and build trust within the community. Individuals knew where to turn if they had a question about voting or tell their friends about this service.
3. Partnering with other organizations
In order to reach more people, Scalawag interviewed local organizations– Democracy North Carolina, Black Voters Matter Fund, the Southern Center for Human Rights, and more on their weekly video series addressing voting during the pandemic and what voter suppression looks like in 2020.
People that watched these videos were able to get accurate information ahead of the election and knew which organizations to turn to in their communities if they had additional questions. On the other hand, organizations directed people to Scalawag’s As the South Votes website if they couldn’t answer their questions.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Sticking to One Strategy
Scalawag Magazine created a couple of interactive tools to reach more people- a text-based hotline, weekly video series on social media. “Sticking to one strategy around a new tool, you are able to see how you can make that tactic the best version of what it is before dreaming up a new one and moving on to the next idea,” said Cooper.
2. Personalizing text messages
Instead of general text-based greetings, Scalawag editors and reporters realized they could have personalized the messages and informing individuals which staff members responded to their question “At our events, we find that putting a face to the organization is what gets people to keep coming back to Scalawag over time,” said Cooper.
3. Hiring New Staff while Implementing New Tactics
“Hiring new staff while developing an actionable project plan left us with little room to re-assess some of our ongoing projects during the election cycle, a price we’re paying with catchup work now that this project is winding down. However, without that sprint start to carry us through the first hump of that work, we would not currently have the staff and infrastructure that we have in place now to successfully implement and build upon even more learnings from our successes this year,” said Cooper.
To learn more about this project and how to replicate it in your own community, email Scalawag at firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up for their weekly newsletter to stay informed with all of the news that is happening in the South.