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HARRISBURG — You’ve probably heard the term “off-year election.”
It refers to one that takes place in years that don’t feature a midterm or presidential election. These elections regularly see low voter turnout and less media coverage, sending the message that they aren’t as important as ones with high-profile races on the ballot.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In 2023, Pennsylvania voters statewide will be asked to pick a new state Supreme Court justice as well as judges to sit on Commonwealth and Superior Courts. These appellate courts set down highly consequential decisions about elections, school funding, and more.
Further down the ballot are more judicial contests as well as municipal races for local officials and school board members. These elected officials have regular, close contact with communities and can use that power for good (and bad).
Regardless of your political affiliation, trusted election reporting is the bedrock of an informed electorate and an informed vote. As always, all of our public-service election coverage will be free and available to all on spotlightpa.org and through our more than 90 community newsroom partners across the state that republish our work.
And as we did in 2022, Spotlight PA will be translating its election guides into Spanish and distributing them through our Spanish-language partners.
» If you value Spotlight PA’s nonpartisan approach to election reporting that puts voters first, please help support it by making a tax-deductible gift at spotlight.org/donate, or by mailing a check to: Spotlight PA, PO Box 11728, Harrisburg, Pa. 17108-1728.
Table of Contents
The races we will cover, and why
What you will see on your 2023 ballot will largely depend on where you live.
Statewide, Pennsylvanians will be asked to vote for state Supreme Court, Superior Court, and Commonwealth Court candidates. These races will be Spotlight PA’s main coverage focus.
The judges and justices who serve on these courts make extremely important decisions regarding voting rules, redistricting, the criminal justice system, and more. Many of the policy debates between the governor and legislature Spotlight PA regularly reports on will end up being litigated by this part of the judicial branch.
Common Pleas Court and magisterial district judge candidates will also appear on the ballot, as will people vying to serve on county commissions, city councils, and school boards. Some voters will also see legislative candidates running in special elections.
There are way too many of these municipal races for Spotlight PA to cover in-depth. Instead, we’ll empower voters to make an informed decision by teaching them how to vet candidates.
How we will cover the candidates
Spotlight PA will not publish “horse race” coverage — stories that focus on campaign stops, the latest attacks, or who is winning or losing in the polls. For one, other news outlets will provide that coverage, and we don’t see a need to duplicate it. If you’d like to follow the day-to-day developments on the campaign trail, sign up for Spotlight PA’s daily newsletter, PA Post.
Horse race coverage has also been shown to exacerbate the extreme partisanship we see today. Research compiled by The Journalist’s Resource, a project of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center and the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, shows that these stories can lead to distrust in news outlets and politicians as well as create an “uninformed electorate.”
Instead, Spotlight PA will focus on what’s at stake — the judicial records of the appellate court candidates and how their elections might change the trajectory of the state and affect your life. We’ll also focus on how voters can vet other candidates further down the ballot.
Spotlight PA does not publish any editorial or opinion content, nor does it take a position on any particular political party or policy. The newsroom also does not endorse candidates.
How we will cover voting
There are three aspects to our effort to empower voters: The first is to provide trusted information about candidates’ biographies, professional careers, and policy positions. The second is to explain how elections in Pennsylvania are run, how to properly cast a ballot, and how to get involved in the process. And the third is to educate voters on how they can protect themselves against misinformation and other purposeful efforts to peddle falsehoods or sow confusion.
We call this a voter-centric approach.
All of our election coverage — including our guides on how to research candidates and how to vote, whether you choose to do it by mail or in person — is available as part of the Spotlight PA Election Center website.
After the 2020 presidential election and in the years since, Pennsylvania’s voting process — in particular, its mail voting law — has come under intense scrutiny and attack by Republicans, some of whom have advanced false or misleading claims put forth by former President Donald Trump. Our coverage will seek to help readers parse the noise from the facts.
This approach, called “prebunking,” is an alternative to traditional fact-checking done by news organizations. Instead of chasing down every false claim, we seek to educate and empower voters to better recognize these efforts and guard against them. In doing so, we monitor for areas of voter confusion and provide foundational explanatory journalism about how processes and government work. Confusion is often the precusor to mis- and dis-information taking hold.
If you are concerned about confusing or false information being disseminated about this election or the voting process, please contact us using the form below:
How we will cover voting results
News organizations have traditionally collected voting results in hopes of reporting on a winner or projected winner in a race on the night of the election. For a number of reasons, this approach is no longer viable in Pennsylvania during some high-turnout elections, and can contribute to confusion and mistrust.
Counties are unable to process mail ballots before Election Day, and many have different procedures for when they count votes and in what order. For example, some counties will only tabulate in-person votes on Election Day, and then move to mail ballots. Because Republicans tend to vote in person more than Democrats, that can skew early results.
For those reasons and more, we will not report the ongoing tally of votes as they are counted. Instead, we will wait for the vast majority or all of the ballots to be tabulated and then report on the projected winner. What matters to us is being right, not first.
How you can help guide our coverage and Democracy Initiative
Spotlight PA’s coverage aims to put voters first.
To further that goal, we’ve welcomed Elizabeth Estrada as Pennsylvania’s first and only democracy editor to lead our Democracy Initiative. Estrada’s mission is to identify the information voters need to make an informed decision and make sure it reaches them.
Already, she’s worked alongside News Developer Jeff Rummel to revamp Spotlight PA’s Election Center to be more user-friendly. And in early October, they will launch an interactive tool that will help voters understand why this year’s appellate court races matter through the lens of major decisions from the past decade.
This is just the beginning of their work. If you have ideas for the Democracy Initiative and how Spotlight PA can better serve voters, contact Estrada at email@example.com.
Between now and Nov. 7, Spotlight PA wants to hear from you about the issues and questions you have about the races. We won’t be able to answer all of them, but our team of reporters will get to as many as possible.
Send a message using the form below (if you can’t see the form, click here):
Where you can find our coverage
All of Spotlight PA’s election coverage will be available on our site and will be shared with our more than 90 newsroom partners across the state. We have also re-launched Spotlight PA’s Election Center with a voter toolbox, key dates, and a feed of election-related stories. An interactive sample ballot is expected to be available in late September.
If you’re subscribed to one of our newsletters, you’ll also get periodic Voter Alerts letting you know about our latest coverage, key developments, and important upcoming dates. If you’re not yet subscribed, you can do so at spotlightpa.org/newsletters.
This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.