The pandemic isn’t over and neither is election season. On Saturday, Pennsylvania reported its second-highest daily total of new coronavirus cases since the pandemic hit, and Vice President Mike Pence was in Reading campaigning for President Donald Trump.

Also this week, I chatted with data and democracy reporter Jonathan Lai about his work covering voting rights and what to expect on Election Night.

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Behind the story with Jonathan Lai

Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with data and democracy reporter Jonathan Lai about covering voting rights in the 2020 election.

What drew you to journalism and the voters' rights beat in particular?

The cutesy answer is I’m from Palm Beach County and as a child saw firsthand the importance of voting. The real answer is I’m not quite sure I can articulate it fully, but I feel very strongly about the importance of journalism and the importance of voting rights.

Many people probably don’t think about data in relation to elections and voting coverage. How do you use data sets in your work?

There’s a significant amount of political data and election-related data out there I draw upon, including voter registration data, past election results, polling numbers, campaign finance records, mail ballot request data, and more.

Sometimes, I explore the data and try to find something interesting in it, analyzing it until something gets my attention. Other times, I start with a specific question and try to see how I can use data to answer it. For example, if I’m trying to understand how a particular region, county, town, or even neighborhood is changing politically, and what current signs might tell us for an upcoming election, I might move through multiple datasets:

  • Start with Census Bureau data to see how the population has changed: Are people moving in or out? Are they more or less educated? Higher or lower income? Immigrants or native-born?
  • Then look at voter registration data, which gives us a broad view of how people self-identify their partisan affiliations so they can vote in primary elections: What percentage of new registrants are registering with Democrat, Republican, or other parties? What percentage are unaffiliated? How many people are switching parties, and in which direction?
  • Then look at past election results to see how that plays out on the ground: Have election results changed over time? What happens in high- vs. low-turnout elections? Do preferences vary for federal, state, and local elections? I might also compare the election results with the voter registration data and see whether a county votes more in favor of one party than the registration data would suggest.
  • Finally, I might look at campaign finance records to see how the most politically engaged voters feel: Which candidates do voters in the area give to, now and in the past? How has that changed over time? How does past political giving in the area line up with the ultimate voting patterns in past elections?
  • In this particular election, given the strong partisan split on voting by mail vs. in person, I might also look at mail ballot requests and see what those can tell us.

What is one thing every voter should know about Pennsylvania’s election?

The election is really complex. Things will get messy at times, but it’s almost never fraud and we need to remain calm.

Things go wrong. People make mistakes. There are 67 counties running 67 elections, which really means there are tens of thousands of poll workers running thousands of in-person elections, and hundreds or even thousands of elections staffers running an unprecedented mail-in election.

When something happens — and it will — we need to be really calm and make sure we understand what’s going on, how it happened, and what it means. In most cases, it will be simple human error.

What are you expecting Election Night to look like?

There will be a lot of people wanting to immediately know who the president is, and there is a very, very good chance we will not have that answer. The thing is, it takes time to count mail ballots, and Pennsylvania doesn’t allow them to be counted until the morning of Election Day. It will take days to count mail ballots, and the state Supreme Court has allowed mail ballots to be received up until the Friday after Election Day.

That means there will be a lot of mail ballots that won’t be counted on Election Day. In fact, elections officials in Philly and the suburbs expect most of their mail ballots won’t be counted until after Election Day.

Why does that affect the ability to call a race? We’re seeing a pretty strong partisan divide this year: Republicans are much more likely to vote in person than by mail, and Democrats/Biden supporters are much more likely to vote by mail than in person. That means the results we see on election night — the unofficial totals reflecting primarily the in-person votes, as well as some mail ballots that were counted that day — will almost certainly skew much more toward Trump than the final results.

It may take a few days before we have enough results to confidently call a winner in the presidential race, though I would be surprised if it took longer. If there’s an open question after a few days, it won’t be because of the time it takes to count ballots — it’ll be because of litigation.

What is something you wish more people better understood about your job?

I really, truly do not care about partisan politics when it comes to my coverage. I cover the fundamental right to vote, not which candidates and parties people choose to support with that right. That said, we’re not blind to partisan impact, and I really enjoy working with my colleagues who cover the political side of things. We can’t divorce voting rights from politics — and we shouldn’t — so we try to cover them in an appropriately balanced and responsible way.

Also, we spend a lot of time thinking about our responsibilities with this coverage and discussing the public interest.

When you’re not reporting on elections, what do you do for fun?

What do you mean? There’s an election every six months, it’s always election season.

In this Year of the Pandemic, I’m doing a lot of reading in my spare time, since I’m wary of too much contact with other people. Some books I really liked recently include How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Intimations by Zadie Smith, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, Amnesty by Aravind Adiga, and New Waves by Kevin Nguyen. Send me book recommendations at jlai@inquirer.com.

Email Jonathan Lai at jlai@inquirer.com and follow him on Twitter at @Elaijuh.

Through Your Eyes | #OurPhilly

This is a really cool sunset time-lapse of Philly. You can see the video on Instagram. Thanks for sharing, @elevated.angles!

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How to take care of your fabric face mask

By now, we all know that we should wear face masks in public as part of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. According to the CDC, cloth face masks can prevent asymptomatic people from spreading the virus through respiratory droplets that we expel when we talk, cough, or sneeze. How do you take care of your mask? How many do you need? How do you properly take it off and put it on? Here is what you need to know.

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