Jim Crow Returns

Jim Crow Returns

Organisation: Al Jazeera America (United States)

Publication Date: 12/30/2014

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Description

Category 9: General Excellence (Jurors' Choice) A six-month, two-part investigation by Al Jazeera America found that millions of voters, disproportionately minority, could have their names purged from voter rolls because of a computer program to look for voters who illegally voted twice in the same election in two different states. The first part, “Jim Crow Returns,” investigated the methodology and operation of the program, Interstate Crosscheck, which is used by elections officials. According to Crosscheck, nearly 7 million people across 28 states are possible “double voters.” But the investigation, by a team of researchers and data analysts led by reporter Greg Palast, found that their list was nothing more than a compendium of common names. Program officials claimed that those who are removed as double voters were matched using social security numbers and other positive identifiers. After sending in Freedom of Information Act requests to about two dozen of the participating states, Al Jazeera obtained the Interstate lists from Georgia, Virginia and Washington, totaling just over 2 million names. An analysis of the records showed that Crosscheck used just first and last name in determining a match, and ignored middle initial mismatches and Jr/Sr differences. Other matches were simply of people who were registered to vote in one state, and then moved to another, such as students who moved to a college in a different state. Further scrutiny found that the program disproportionately targets minorities — especially African Americans — because of the commonality of minority surnames. One in 7 African Americans, 1 in 8 Asian Americans and 1 in 8 Hispanics are at risk of having their names of being scrubbed from voter rolls. Palast tracked down some of the voters whose names appeared on the list, but every one of them said they’d never voted in more than one state. One, Joseph Naylor, a resident of a senior center in Atlanta, filed a sworn and witnessed affidavit that he had not voted in two states in order to save his vote. He was one of 10 suspected double voters tagged by Crosscheck at that old age home. The second part of the story, “Voting rights groups challenge electoral purges,” featured on-the-ground reporting from North Carolina. Based on Al Jazeera America’s investigation, the state chapter of the NAACP sent a legal letter to the State Board of Elections warning about Crosscheck-related electoral purges. In Georgia, where participation in Crosscheck was secret, an angry State Rep. Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, has come out strongly against the “nefarious” program. Part one was accompanied by a multimedia project featuring a searchable list of people whose names appear on the Virginia and Georgia Crosscheck lists. Users could also look up common names, drawn from the U.S. Census’s list of 1000 most common surnames, and see the likely ethnicities of those names. After the midterm election, Al Jazeera America published a third, follow-up story, “Voter purges alter US political map,” which showed that Crosscheck-style voter purges could have easily accounted for Republican victories in at least two Senate races, in North Carolina, where Thom Tillis won over the incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan by a mere 48,511 votes, and in Colorado, where Cory Gardner forced out incumbent Sen. Mark Udall and which Crosscheck lists revealed that 300,842 of that state’s voters were subject to being purged from the rolls. Since the stories were published, several groups have stated their intentions to take action — advocacy and legal. The legal group Asian Americans Advancing Justice released an advisory before voting day to raise awareness of possible problems at the ballot box and set up a multilingual hotline to assist voters. They also plan to take legal action. As mentioned, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP sent a letter to the State Board of Elections about the purges, and the activist group Color of Change plans a large-scale campaign based on the Al Jazeera America investigation.

Technologies used for this project:

ANALYSIS A data analysis team worked on the raw records — the Crosscheck lists for Georgia, Virginia and Washington — to create a comprehensive database of files that was used to build the interactive. The team used public files from the Census Bureau, which included a digital list of the top 1,000 surnames in the 2010 census, as well as the ethnic breakdown of those names. For example, the last name “Garcia” is the 8th most common in the country, with almost a million Garcias in the United States; 91 percent of them self-report as Latino, 6 percent as white, 1 percent as black, and 2 percent as Asian. Finally, Al Jazeera America used census and Pew Center data on voting populations by ethnicity by state. The three lists the team received had in excess of 300,000 names each. The analysts loaded them into a single database and began the standard processes of sorting, ranking, counting and cross-tabulating the names. They tallied the numbers and percentages of records where the purported probable match, did not match on last name, middle name or initial, first name and/or title. They then scanned the database to see if Social Security numbers or other indicators were provided, and, if so, whether they matched. Simultaneously, by using census data, the team assigned to each Crosscheck-provided record the probability that the voter in question is white, black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific, or American Indian/Aleut. This was used to determine the likelihood of over/underrepresentation of different ethnic communities in the Crosscheck files. Finally, the analysts extrapolated these findings to the rest of the states. INTERACTIVE The database received from the analysts contained about 1.2 million names, but the risk was still high that users would end up with a null result. The solution was to have a way to signal quickly if the user would get a result. The team listed the number of results matching each letter of a search. The interactive also provided a randomly generated list of last names drawn from the top 25 most common last names in the United States. To allow the interactive to quickly return results, our multimedia team broke the list of names into three groups: names from Virginia, names from Georgia and names from both. (Users can choose in the interface to search just one state or both. Washington was excluded from the interactive because it did not include cities for each voter record, which was desired for the final product.) Each group had a data folder that included many thousands of JSON files. A JSON file was created for small portions of the alphabet — AAB, AAD, AAG, for example — so that when the user typed in “A”, the interactive would narrow in on only the A files in the chosen group, and then further narrow in on the right file when the second letter appeared. This enabled the interactive to quickly return results, so users weren’t waiting for a long time for the search to be completed. The end product is more than 12,000 JSON files. We used Python’s spreadsheet and JSON-handling libraries (https://github.com/jdunck/python-unicodecsv) to combine datasets from different states in different forms, and Javascript libraries including jQuery (http://jquery.com/), Underscore (http://underscorejs.org/) and Handlebars (http://handlebarsjs.com/) to quickly craft an interface that would work cleanly and consistently across browsers. The interactive was developed concurrently with the reporting. The final draft didn’t arrive until a mere two days before publication — Palast reported from the first day of early voting in Atlanta — so the multimedia team built the search interactive first, separate from the story page. To quickly build the project page — which included both parts of the story, plus the interactive along with some static graphics — the multimedia team used a series of page templates created by another Al Jazeera America developer for use in Tarbell (http://blog.apps.chicagotribune.com/2013/06/07/meet-tarbell/), a news app built by the Chicago Tribune staff. Tarbell links to Google Drive, which allows editors to make text changes while developers were able to integrate the searchable database and style the final project page.
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