Behind the Scenes of the Charlotte Ledger’s Election Hub

By Catherine Komp

Newsletter Editor

Last year, Charlotte Ledger Executive Editor Tony Mecia was approached by someone in the community with an interesting proposal: did he want to collaborate on a voter guide? Sucharita Kodali spent her days as a retail industry analyst, her nights researching candidates. She compiled detailed google docs about “hyperlocal, down-ballot, low-information races that affect our communities” and distributed the information on Reddit

For Tony, the timing was perfect. 

“This is something I’d wanted to do for a while because as a voter, it was frustrating to research the candidates and there was no great central location [for information],” said Mecia. “There were some other voter guides that were out there, but I thought they could be improved upon.”

Mecia recalls the 2022 primary where Patrick Cannon was running for a seat on Charlotte City Council. The former Mayor had been convicted of bribery by the US Justice Department back in 2014, and while widely covered by local media (including as Cannon ran for reelection), that detail was missing from a candidate questionnaire

“If you were a new voter in Charlotte and you were reading this about Patrick Cannon, you would have no way of knowing that this guy running for Charlotte City Council had previously been convicted of accepting bribes after being elected to public office in Charlotte,” said Mecia. 

The Ledger is a small operation, just three full-time staff including Mecia. With the proposal from Kodali to partner, he jumped at the opportunity to create a new resource for the community.

“We tried to come at it from that point of view of the voter who’s trying to research candidates and try to make it kind of easy for them as opposed to having to Google, pull information from a bunch of different places and make a decision,” said Mecia. “Can we do that and save that voter some time?”

With Kodali as a partner, the Ledger piloted its voter guide last Fall for the municipal elections. They just published their 2024 Primary Election Hub on February 15th, timed to coincide with the start of in-person early voting. It’s a thorough resource covering Mecklenburg and three neighboring counties, with a simple and easy-to-navigate design. 

The Charlotte Ledger also held a candidates’ reception this month in partnership with the Charlotte Area Chamber of Commerce and CLT Public Relations. More than 40 candidates attended, including state senators, commissioners and council of state candidates. During the event, they pulled county commissioner candidates aside and interviewed them for short videos they’re also adding to their voter guide. 

Photo by Tony Mecia

Tony graciously took time from his busy week to share some insights on how the Election Hub came together, the editorial decisions they made, the limitations they have and what they’re doing to reach beyond their current audience. Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

NC Local: How has your Voter Guide/Election Hub changed from previous years?

Tony Mecia: We started at the end of last year. Obviously this election has a lot more candidates in Mecklenburg County. I think we did summaries of 94 candidates just on the Mecklenburg ballot. That’s a lot to pull together and summarize. Fortunately, Sucharita is a researcher by profession. She’s very quick and she’s very good, and so she wrote up most of the summaries, along with an intern that we hired in January for a few weeks. 


We’re expanding it. It’s bigger [than last Fall’s]. We are actually moving into additional counties. We now have write ups for Union County, Gaston County and Cabarrus County, so neighboring counties to Mecklenburg. We’d eventually like to build it out, and keep growing. 

The fact that it’s a primary, it’s a little different than a general election in the way that we’re structuring it because we’re structuring it assuming you’re either going to take the Democratic ballot or the Republican ballot. We did the Libertarian ballot too. We structured them that way as opposed to race by race, which if you mix in the candidates from each party, that’s not as helpful because that’s not what voters are going to see on their ballots. 

NC Local: What information did you want to prioritize for the public?

Tony Mecia: We wanted to prioritize being consistent across the different candidates and to make sure that in terms of length and the information that we were including that it was similar. You’ll notice they sort of have a Zagat’s style. It’ll take quotes from their website or quotes from news articles and link to them. If there’s been anything controversial in their background for which they made the news, or if there was a key vote, we tried to include that. 

Also we tried to not make it too much of a chore. We didn’t want to make it too long. We did want to provide more information if people want additional information, but just giving people a few sentences of biographical information about who this person is, are they qualified or do they have the experience for this office, what is their relevant experience. We tried to look at all those and do it succinctly, and with a summary that’s written by us as opposed to just pure candidate questionnaires that’s written by them, which might not be as interesting and might not have some key facts. 

We also provide references to candidate questionnaires from other media. That’s another thing, we’re not trying to say we have all the answers to everything. If there is a story in The Charlotte Observer or WRAL or somewhere else or something on social media, we have no problem linking to that and saying, “Hey, this is what was reported” or even here’s some other answers to questions from other candidate questionnaires from other media organizations.

We feel like that’s a good reader service and we’re not trying to say we have a complete monopoly on the information. I think that just acknowledges the reality of media nowadays. 

NC Local: The candidate questionnaires appear pretty short. What was the thinking behind this? 

Tony Mecia: The candidate questionnaires are short and that’s by design. We feel like we get a better response rate and this is true of pretty much anything. The fewer questions you ask, the higher the response. So we’re not able to dig in as deeply on some issues, but we do get a pretty high response. We felt it was important for people to be able to hear candidates in their own words on why people should vote for them. 

Out of those 90 or so candidates, we got more than 60 replies. So we did get a pretty good response rate. And it’s really interesting looking at how candidates answer the questions. Some are very succinct and some go on pages and pages and pages. And so we just let them talk on the candidate questionnaires. But I do feel like the response rates are high because we don’t subject them to answering 20 questions. They receive a lot of these candidate questionnaires and so we wanted to encourage responses.

NC Local: Do you fact check candidate responses? 

Tony Mecia: We fact check certain elements of it. If they say that they previously served in the North Carolina House, we’ll look that up. We’re not able to fact check everything just because of the size of our operation. If they say they served in Afghanistan, that’s not something with the number of candidates that we have that we’re going to be able to look into. If they say they worked on the space shuttle, at some point, you take their word for it. If it is something that’s high profile, like an elective office, those are the sorts of things that are easier to check. There are some things that are just almost impossible to check.  

I wish we had the resources to have a fact checking department to scour over everything. But that’s just the reality of what we have. 

NC Local: What considerations went into the design of the guide? 

Tony Mecia: We wanted to make sure that the guide was easy to use, that it’s easy to navigate, that it was intuitive in how you move around from section to section. We decided to lay it out like an actual ballot that you would receive when you go into the voting booth, so by party since in this case it’s a primary. 

What that means though is that your individual files are very long, so it’s important, and we were conscious about this, to put in anchor links in the document so you can hop around. You need to go back up to the top, OK, here’s a summary of this candidate. Do you want to go read their candidate questionnaire? There are links on all these things because it is a very long document. We felt like that was a superior approach to creating a whole bunch of files and having people constantly click, click, click, click to get to a bunch of things. 

We don’t have pictures, we don’t have a lot of graphics. It’s not snazzy. It does have information and we just tried to make it pleasing to the eye but not glitzy. So I think we accomplished that. 

NC Local: What role did or does community input or feedback play in shaping the content of the voter guide? 

Tony Mecia: We heard a lot of positive feedback when we did it last Fall; we tried to incorporate some of those comments. Since we’ve rolled out the new guide, we’ve been getting things back like, “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you mention the candidate that didn’t reply to your candidate questionnaire? Why don’t you say they didn’t reply?” So we do incorporate feedback like that. 

Most people are just sort of happy that something like this exists. Even in Charlotte, the biggest city in North Carolina, where people probably perceive that there’s more information here than most other markets in the state, which is true. But I still think that there’s an opportunity to try to serve our readers by having a guide like this that’s fairly comprehensive, with readers in mind, easy to digest and easy to read. 

NC Local: Are you doing anything new to promote the guide? 

Tony Mecia: One of the advantages of working with Sucharita, who does not come from a journalism background, is that she has a lot of great new ideas that I think wouldn’t necessarily occur to a lot of journalists. One of the things we did in the Fall that was very well received was we printed up some yard signs and we put the yard signs at voting locations, at the polling sites. You have all these candidate signs, and we have a sign that says, “Who are all these candidates?” with a silhouette of North Carolina and a QR code. So the people who are walking in to vote, typically they know who’s running for Congress, they know who’s running for president. They don’t necessarily know who’s running for State Senate District 41 or County Commission District 3. So we thought it was important for voters, if they had no idea who these people were, to be able to scan a QR code and get information that was not from the candidates, but that is impartial and can tell them who these folks are. 

Sucharita also printed up some flyers and we put them at coffee shops and then of course, the usual: social media, a lot of word of mouth. Those are a few of the ways that we’ve helped to spread the word that this exists. We put out the yard signs out this week as well.

NC Local: Will you do anything differently for the general election? 

Tony Mecia: A lot of what we do is in experimental mode so we’ll just try things out. One of the things we do is pay a lot of attention to the metrics: how many people are reading the questionnaires? What are they clicking on in the guide? We also do a podcast, we did several last Fall. We have some going up in the next few days, one on the Democratic ballot, one on the Republican ballot. Just very quick, here’s what you need to know. So we’re testing out some of these alternate formats. We’re seeing how many people use the QR codes of the yard signs, so we have all these numbers. At the end of this election cycle, we can look at those and say, OK, here’s what worked, here’s what didn’t, what if we did this differently? So we will be modifying some things. I can’t tell you exactly what those are without knowing what the numbers show. 

One of the other things we’re testing out is these surrounding counties. We want to see what the market is there. I will say in Charlotte, it’s a lot easier to find out information about some of these candidates. In some of these more rural counties, you can see some of the problems there in getting reliable information. There just isn’t a lot relative to Charlotte. So that is one of the things we would like to do is continue to expand the number of counties, but again we’ll evaluate. 

NC Local: Is there anything you’d love to include, but didn’t for any reason? 

Tony Mecia: If resources were no object, I would love to do more on the voting records of incumbents. I feel like a lot of times we elect these people, they go to Raleigh or they’re elected in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, and they’re casting votes all the time and nobody is really collecting [the votes], there’s no scorecards. It’s hard to know as a voter what your incumbents stand for. It’s probably the case that a lot of Republicans vote similarly and a lot of Democrats vote similarly. But what are those points of differentiation? 

I would like to be able to do a little bit more on that. I think that would be really helpful to do. How do we improve the quality of information other than looking at what’s out there? There’s more original reporting we could do in theory, but we’re not really built for that. We’re a small organization, but I think even as a small organization, we’re showing that you can do some good work and have an impact. 

NC Local: Do you have any favorite voter guides from other news organizations? 

Tony Mecia: We did look at a few. One by LAIST helped inform some of our thinking. We took a few of their ideas as far as the navigation within the files, that was something we liked. And then we noticed they asked for donations. This voter guide, this election hub that we’re doing is free to all. Ordinarily we have a paywall on about half of our content. This is absolutely free to all. No ads, not paid for in the traditional ways, but it’s something that we consider to be a reader service. So we’re not going to subject it to any kind of paywall, which is different from what other news organizations have chosen to do. 

We feel like it’s a civic good. Our readers like it, and on the business side, I think that’s good for us, frankly. But it’s just good to serve your readers and make something like this available. So we do ask for donations on those pages saying “Hey, if you like this work, this work is not supported directly in any kind of way through ads or grants.” There’s really no funding source for this other than our general revenue that we have from subscriptions and sponsorships, which are two main sources of revenue. So we do ask for donations, if people feel led and if they feel like it’s helpful. So that’s another thing we stole from LAIST. 

Get some more inspiration

In a presentation for the “Best Practices for Voting Guides” webinar from Heaken’s Election SOS initiative, Bridget Thoreson starts with a simple statement:

Something > nothing

But, Thoreson stresses, you do not have to do everything. If you have limited resources, start small. Pick something that gets you and your team excited and go from there. Thoreson also recommends starting with a basic “what, how and where” conversation to begin building your game plan. 

🧐 What do people need to know?

📚 How can we best provide that information?

📍 Where can we share this information?

WCU Political Science Professor and Old North State Politics blog contributor Chris Cooper has some suggestions to help answer that first question. He recommends including:

  1. Basic information about voting (where, how)
  2. Reminders of changes to election laws and rules that will affect voters. Although there are many, voter ID and mail ballots accepted by 7:30 on election day are among the most important to reinforce.
  3. Explanation of what a primary is. As much as it may surprise journalists and folks who think about politics for a living, many people don’t understand the difference between a general and a primary election.
  4. A consistent set of candidate questions that leans into local offices and local issues.

Cooper says he’d like to see more of #3 in local voter guides and coverage, and stresses that news and information outlets should “avoid assuming too much knowledge on the part of the reader.” 

Importantly, make time for engagement tactics (even if you don’t have capacity for a full Citizens/Community Agenda). Here are a few ideas:

💡Ask your current audience what questions they have about the voting process and get those answers from your local Board of Elections or NCSBE.

💡Survey your audience on what issues matter most and what they want candidates to address (you could partner with other media or local organizations on this). Use these responses to create candidate questionnaires.

💡Get creative! To understand the city better, Signal Cleveland developed “A Ward Tour,” where they’re inviting residents to show them around their neighborhoods. This could be used to inform questionnaires, reporting and become a way to distribute your voter guides.

Have questions about voter guides or want to share your innovative strategies? Get in touch at nclocal@

NC Local News Workshop