Election coverage has changed over the years

By: 
Chuck Kajer, The New Prague Times

Since first starting as editor of the Le Sueur News-Herald in 1988, I have covered close to 30 elections. Some of these were major elections and others included just local races. The way elections are covered has changed a great deal during that time, but some things have remained unchanged.

I arrived in the news room at the News-Herald in October, a month before the election. The area was in the middle of a nasty legislative rematch between the incumbent and a former legislator who had lost a close race to the incumbent two years earlier. It was my first experience in receiving letters to the editor and it was a quick lesson in how to put out information in a fair and impartial manner.

Letters to the Editor have always been an issue in an election year. We’ve always attempted to balance them out - a similar number of letters for each candidate in a race when possible. Because we are a community newspaper, if we have to choose between two letters for the same candidate, we go with one from a letter-writer from our community. Some campaigns put more of an emphasis on letter writing than others and inundate our office with letters. One campaign in a county-wide race a few years back complained that we weren’t running all of their letters because we favored the opponent, who was a New Prague native.

Another candidate, running for the legislature, was upset because of our policy of not allowing letters from candidates during election season - it is our position that they should pay to get this message out to voters. He tried to get around this policy by having his wife sign the letters. We allowed it once but told him we would not do this again, and he complained greatly.

When I first arrived at The Times in 1990, I was in an unusual position in that a lifelong friend and former college roommate was a candidate for the legislature in the New Market area, running against an incumbent. When I met his opponent for the first time, I informed him of this and assured him that the friendship would not affect my coverage of the race, and several years later, when he left the legislature, he told me he appreciated the honesty.

Back in the 1990s, in order to get the election results, we had to go to the county courthouse on Tuesday nights to get them for the paper going to press Wednesday morning. That could get a little complicated when this newspapers’ coverage area goes into three counties. Fortunately, we were able to send our Waterville editor to Faribault and our Montgomery editor to Le Center while I went to Shakopee, where they would post the information on the wall outside the county auditor’s office. I would copy some of this information onto notebooks and some of it was provided to us on a printed copy. This was also in the days before we had email, so we would have to go through everything, make phone calls to each other and fax the results to each other. Somehow, by press time, we’d have our story. I recall the 1998 election, when I learned while driving to Shakopee that Jesse Ventura was projected to be the winner of the governor’s race. It was all anyone could talk about at the courthouse that evening.

Today, getting election results is much easier. We simply have to go to the Minnesota Secretary of State’s website, where we can get the information we need, broken down by county or by precinct. Ballots are tabulated via scanning machines and the results are usually available online within an hour or two. Still, it seems, there’s always one or two precincts that take a little longer to post online. Usually, we know by about midnight what all the totals are for local elections. Years ago, I would have a few hours before I had to have everything ready to go to press in the morning. More recently, I’ve got to get that information posted right away online, then work on refining the story for our morning press time.

That means, once again, this coming Tuesday, I’ll be holed up in my office, checking local election results and working to get the totals reported.

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