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People’s Agenda: Your questions to the candidates

Early voting in Eastern Henrico in 2020
An elections officer assists a man who is voting early in Richmond during the 2020 election. (Crixell Matthews / VPM News) 

VPM News received 166 submissions from community members, over the course of six weeks, answering one question: What do you want candidates to talk about as they compete for votes?  

These responses will be used to help draft an approach for the VPM News team as it begins to cover the 2022 House of Representatives races, specifically for Virginia’s District 5th and 7th.  

Responses to this crucial question were submitted through a program called Hearken, which is used for engagement initiatives to develop projects with the community’s input.  

Who took the survey? 

VPM News used a program developed by Hearken, an audience engagement company that works with newsrooms, to collect and organize submissions. As part of the survey, respondents were asked to share their zip code. A heatmap was created from zip codes of people who filled out VPM surveys between April and June of 2022.  

Heatmap created of zip codes for people who responded to survey
This map shows the locations of participants of the People's Agenda Election Survey who shared their zip codes with VPM News. (Hearken)

Most people said they were mainly living in the City of Richmond and surrounding counties, as well as Harrisonburg and its surrounding counties. Fredericksburg and the Roanoke-area also were places where a significant number of votes came from. 

Because of limitations with the program, our staff could not break apart data from other outreach projects being conducted by VPM with this program, but this map shows locations predominately associated with the People’s Agenda Survey. 

What did people ask the candidates?  

The list of questions below incorporates the most frequently mentioned issues in responses to the People’s Agenda Election Survey 2022. Some of the questions were adapted from larger submissions to be more direct or to include a more all-encompassing look at a topic, based off other responses that were similar in nature. 

  • What actions will you take in office to mitigate the impacts of global warming in the U.S. and Virginia and reduce carbon emissions in the near future? 
  • How do you plan to overcome political polarization in order to get things done for your constituents? 
  • How will you engage with and serve a district where you do not reside? 
  • Where do you stand on teaching the history of racism in grades K through 12? How should it be approached by school communities? 
  • What are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed to improve public education? 
  • The opioid epidemic has been disastrous not only for people who use drugs, but also for people with disabilities and chronic pain. How do you plan to deal with the overdose crisis — without criminalizing drug users? 
  • Access to healthcare and other social services continues to decline as medical costs rise. What will you do to help people afford basic health care, medications, eyeglasses, and dental care? 
  • A growing number of households with children have two working parents, including my own. When both of my children were in daycare roughly half of my take home pay went to daycare expenses. How can we lessen this burden on young families? 
  • While Virginia was ranked the “Best State for Business” by CNBC in 2021, the commonwealth has lagged nationally in terms of labor protections. How are you going to ensure workers’ rights are protected and expanded? 

How did you select the submissions and how were they adapted into questions to the candidates?  

During the project, staff members looked for predominate themes in the responses. They also tried to look at the tone and perspectives of the respondents, to try to understand what their motivations might have been when submitting questions or statements. Some responses were rephrased to more fully reflect the spirit of the question, including more details relating to issues respondents highlighted as priorities.  

Graphic showing how submissions were originally written and how they were adapted by the VPM News team.

 

Halfway through the process, a poll was launched to see if staff members were on track with what submission topics were included while developing the agenda. 

Eighty-four people participated in the survey. The results of the poll revealed that about 40% of respondents thought the most important question to ask candidates was “How will they work together in Congress to stop this one side against another polarization where nothing gets done?”  

Overall, the most popular questions identified in the poll and the survey as a whole related to the environment and climate change or governing styles and concerns about polarization within political parties.  

Pie cart showing the results of a survey

How will the questions and responses be used in the future? 

A group of seven VPM News staff members went through submissions to create a set of 8 questions and statements to form the People’s Agenda. These responses will be used during interviews with candidates for the upcoming U.S. House of Representatives elections, specifically Districts 5th and 7th. The questions will also guide what topics VPM News reporters explore during the election cycle.  

There were also multiple topics included frequently in responses that VPM staff members plan to ask about during multiple listening sessions this summer. During those sessions, staffers will meet with community members in two geographic areas to learn more about residents’ priorities. This will help identify more specific information needed by the VPM News team to help develop stories related to these issues, which include: 

  • Women’s health and abortion 
  • Housing affordability 
  • Student debt  
  • Rising healthcare costs  
  • Campaign etiquette and governing styles 
  • Voter and election protections 

Stories worked on by the VPM News team during the election cycle may take the form of articles on vpm.org or feature stories showcased on VPM News’ programs on NPR or PBS, such as the VPM Daily Newscast or VPM News Focal Point. Direct questions also can be posed to candidates during debates hosted by VPM News, which will be broadcast on multiple platforms.   

What did VPM News learn during the process?  

Members of the VPM News team who coordinated the query aimed to garner the same number of responses for the People’s Agenda Election Survey 2022 as a similar poll amassed in 2020. In the end, fewer than half of the number of the goal was met. 

This kind of declining engagement also occurs in voter turnout for a non-presidential election year. For example, in 2020 when then-President Donald Trump and then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden were running for the White House, VPM News had about 350 submissions to its Citizen’s Agenda Election Survey. This year, 184 participated. Voter turnout data from the Virginia Department of Elections shows 4,486,821 people voted in 2020, about 75% of registered voters. While the last time there was an off year congressional election, in 2018, 3,374,382 Virginians voted, which was about 60% of registered voters.  

The survey was also launched during part of the year when most people were probably not thinking about the election. In the future, VPM News might consider moving this community-focused engagement project closer to the fall, as political candidates are regularly visiting potential voters and supporters.  

It might be a cliché, but it truly does “take a village” to thoroughly evaluate submissions and try to see the perspectives of respondents. This year, a wide range of people on staff were able to participate behind the scenes. Since more diverse perspectives — age, gender identity, race and job experience — were brought to the table there were more thoughtful discussions about what should be integrated into the VPM News team’s coverage.