Chase Down Environmental Ballot Measures for State-Level Stories

September 23, 2020

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Local and state ballot measures, although in the shadow of a presidential race and hampered by the pandemic, can nevertheless yield good stories for energy and environment reporters. Photo: Paul Sableman, Wikimedia Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Reporter’s Toolbox: Chase Down Environmental Ballot Measures for State-Level Stories

By Joseph A. Davis

As the 2020 election season heats up, environmental journalists may want to keep an eye out for ballot measures on energy and environmental questions. 

Easily overlooked, not only because of the distraction of a hot presidential race, but also because the health-related constraints of the pandemic may dampen activity, here are eight top ways to find them.

  1. Read the news in your state or region. If there is a statewide or state-capital newspaper try following it or at least searching it. Talk to some of the statehouse reporters if you can. Or the AP regionals if you can find them.
  2. Check environmental groups. They’re different in every state, but the big statewide groups are often the ones petitioning for a ballot measure. Figure out which they are in your region and talk to them about what measures they are working on or watching.
  3. Find out the deadlines. There are deadlines for all kinds of things, including the start of a petition campaign for getting something on the ballot. Most important, though, is the deadline for filing petitions with enough signatures to qualify a measure for an actual vote. That is the date news is most likely to be found.
  4. Try Google or another search engine of your choice. Enter search terms like: “ballot measure” (in quotes), “2020” and “environment” (or “energy”) — all combined for a single search. Restrict results to “news.” You may have other database options for a news search.
  5. Check in with your secretary of state’s office or the state board of elections. They may have lists of active or pending ballot measures that you can go through.
  6. Check in with civic organizations — like, typically, the League of Women Voters, which has local chapters — which may prepare their own sample ballots and voters’ guides.
  7. Consult the database at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tries to keep listings of state ballot initiatives. It allows searches by topic and by state. NCSL has so far listed at least 106 measures nationwide, and that number will grow.
  8. Take a look at what’s on the Ballotpedia site. It may take effort and results may not be comprehensive. One strategy is to ask for a sample ballot for the address where you live. Another is to search for “ballot measures 2020”.

Remember that there will be local ballot measures as well as statewide ones, though these may be less relevant for you. Remember, too, that just getting enough signatures (legitimate ones) to qualify may be an iffy venture.

A big part of the story, too, will be who is campaigning for or against a particular measure. It is usually possible to find out who is circulating a petition. Harder, but more important, may be who is working to defeat a measure.

Keep in mind that this year may see fewer ballot measures because of the pandemic. Petition campaigns for ballot measures typically rely on face-to-face contact methods like door-knocking or tables at supermarket exits. Limits for social distancing may make those efforts harder to mount successfully.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 34. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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