Watchdog Q&A

Published — August 9, 2019

Q&A: The Texas Tribune’s Alexa Ura on voter access

Introduction

We’re publishing a series of Q&As with reporters who have uncovered powerful investigative stories. 

This week was the 54th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law aimed to help African Americans overcome legal barriers that prevented them to vote at the state and local levels. 

While voting should be a fundamental American right, there are a lot of barriers to who has access to the ballot box. Alexa Ura, the Texas Tribune’s demographics reporter, investigated the state’s purging of voter rolls. 

Texas announced in late January that it had found nearly 100,000 “possible non-U.S. citizens” on the voter rolls, and was initiating a process that could lead to the purging of many of them from the rolls. The Tribune’s newsroom knew from the start that the state’s list of supposed suspect voters likely included naturalized citizens because of the flawed method they used to compile the list. The Tribune proved the fact within days

 How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

Our ability to break stories throughout the debacle was largely thanks to the unique expertise and sourcing that comes from working a beat before news breaks. I knew — as did state officials — that these types of reviews had run into similar issues in other states. And it was local county officials who tipped me off when state officials began to quietly inform them their original list included U.S. citizens; those officials shared emails from the secretary of state’s office in which officials implied that naturalized citizens were on the list far before they publicly acknowledged it, and they confirmed that the state mistakenly flagged U.S. citizens a second time.

My professional and personal knowledge (my dad and several family members are naturalized citizens) about how the naturalization process works was also key to our innate understanding of why the state’s original claim was likely wrong.

But we were ultimately driven to pursue this reporting, which included more than 20 stories in the first four weeks, by the state’s tarnished history of discriminating against voters of color and our desire to show how this was affecting naturalized citizens on the state’s list, who we were able to find even though the state continues to decline to release its list.

2. What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them?

The state’s election system is incredibly decentralized so one of the biggest challenges in reporting this story was the need to constantly take stock of how 254 county officials were each responding to the state’s directive on how to review the citizenship of these voters, particularly when the secretary of state’s office was being far from transparent about the issues with its review. 

In light of that, our strategy was to reach out to election officials in the 15 counties with the most registered voters and then constantly check in with them over the next few weeks.

I kept a running spreadsheet to track my progress, listing out the number of voters flagged for review in each county, the number that dropped to after state officials informed them of their mistakes, how many more voters they were able to clear through other records and the last time I had reached out to each county.

That’s how we ended up being able to report that some voters would be receiving requests to prove their citizenship within days of the state’s announcement and later that election officials were being told that the state’s voter registration manager was unavailable when she had actually resigned days before. And we wouldn’t have gotten the story about the state quietly walking back its claims, which was key to unraveling the problems with the state’s review, without those repeated calls.

Takeaways: Sometimes your personal knowledge can help inform your reporting.

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