Last summer, we asked Documenters to sit down with someone they know to discuss an election that was half a year away. Here’s what we learned.

By City Bureau

(Photo: Courtney Hurt)

(Photo: Courtney Hurt)

2018 was a year dominated by national politics—often, rightfully so. The midterm elections (and their associated drama) soaked up a lot of attention, but here in Chicago, local journalism organizations like City Bureau were looking ahead to 2019.

That’s how we ended up partnering with the Interactivity Foundation, Ballotpedia and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation to start an intensive listening project that we hoped would provide better voter information when Chicago’s mayor, treasurer, clerk and City Council are chosen in February.

The plan is threefold:

  1. City Bureau asks Documenters to conduct interviews with friends and family about what they wanted to know about local elections. (Documenters are people who sign up for free trainings and paid assignments to do civic work like take notes at public meetings and spread the word about cool projects like this.)

  2. Interactivity Foundation uses that information to host discussion groups, in person and online, to discuss the issues Chicagoans care about most and come up with a list of questions they wanted to ask candidates.

  3. Ballotpedia presents those questions to candidates and publishes their responses on its website, in addition to its informational articles about the municipal election.

We are excited to announce that we are now in phase three of the project.

But before the responses start rolling in, we wanted to take a moment to share the results of our interviews.

Why ask Documenters to interview friends and family?

City Bureau’s Documenters are a slice of the city; they live in nearly all of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods and vary in age, race and education. We thought we could come out with a fairly representative survey. We also hoped that folks would be more open and honest in a casual interview with someone they knew rather than a journalist.

We ended up falling short of the former: The respondent group is slightly whiter and much younger than Chicago as a whole. However, the racial demographics match more closely to voter turnout than the overall population. Respondents were much more likely to have voted in recent elections compared to overall voter turnout numbers.

For the latter, it seemed like a success. In fact, one of the most interesting findings was that though people admitted to not knowing much about local politics, the conversation with a friend spurred them to want to know more. We knew we had seeded dozens of political conversations across the city.

I definitely have a heightened interest now … [This interview] made me come to terms with myself, how little I know and how much I’ve yet to learn … I would definitely see it as like a landmark that I finally voted for something in my adult life. — 18- to 24-year-old Latinx/Hispanic American female living on the north side

What were the results?

[For the full report, click here]

Since the interviews were conducted in July and August, long before many people had thought seriously about the 2019 election, we focused on the structure of local government and access to news and information, rather than the candidates and the issues.

When it comes to news coverage of Chicago, interviewees described a need for both depth and breadth: context and background of the political landscape and bullet-pointed updates. Many interviewees also felt they were inundated with content and wished their news experience was more organized or curated, while still exposing them to a variety of sources.

I think there’s a big problem in news in getting into the weeds. There is so much information available. We need to be able to sort through it. So anything that goes towards educating the populace on some sort of bird’s eye view is really productive to me. — 25- to 34-year-old White/European American male living on the north side

Respondents had a lot to say about the type of news and information they receive and what is and is not useful to them. Many desired more explainers and basic information about how local government works. Some pointed at candidate forums as a problem, since politicians are not asked to respond directly to residents’ questions.

In terms of actual local issues, schools, crime/law enforcement and candidate voting records were top concerns. Many interviewees also brought up Chicago’s history of corruption and said it led to them being distrustful or apathetic about local politics.

A lot of times a politician will make a claim that this will do X-Y-Z thing and it oftentimes would require some sophistication and expertise to look into. [For example]: there’s this proposal to provide subsidy to existing landowners, and in return they promise to maintain an ‘affordable’ rent for 15 years. Has this been shown to work in other cities? Has it been tried in Chicago in the past? What do current research or experts say? — 18–24 year old Black/African American male living on the south side

At a ward level, respondents got a lot more specific. They wanted to know how aldermen would tamp down rising rents and gentrification and encourage economic growth in neighborhoods experiencing disinvestment. They wanted information on how TIF (tax increment financing) and tax dollars are spent. They cared about city parking/ticketing policies and potholes.

We’re not going to make any generalizations about Chicagoans based on our small sample size of people. However, these interviews did reveal a lot about how people talk about politics to their close acquaintances. We highly recommend reading the selected quotes and looking at the numbers in our full report.

[For the full report, click here]

What’s next for this project?

City Bureau is hosting a Public Newsroom workshop on Jan. 3 to discuss the results and facilitate a larger conversation about local politics and the ways that civically engaged people can promote voting literacy in their social groups.

Meanwhile, we await candidates’ responses to the list of 20 questions culled from our project with Interactivity/Ballotpedia.

What can I do?

  • We encourage Chicago residents to register to vote if eligible and/or get involved in community groups and have their voices heard come February.

  • Anybody can become a Documenter and get trained and paid to conduct interviews and take notes at public governance meetings — all in the service of promoting a better-informed city.

  • Check Ballotpedia for your local election information… and if you don’t see candidates’ responses to the questionnaire, reach out and let them know you think it’s important!

Support City Bureau’s civic reporting projects by becoming a City Bureau Press Club member today.

To get twice-monthly emails including Chicago news and events, sign up for City Bureau’s Chicago newsletter.