When you see an election ad or watch a presidential debate, you’ll hear the candidates make a lot of claims. They may say a plan they have will create jobs or save taxpayers money. Or they may say their opponent’s plans don’t do what he or she promises.

Should Americans assume all the candidates’ statements are true? No. Politicians spend months answering questions about why Americans should vote for them. Along the way, they can misspeak, exaggerate or try to mislead. Lucky for voters, there are journalists and people working at nonprofit organizations whose job is to fact-check politicians. That means they figure out whether politicians’ statements are true, not exactly true or totally false.

Salvador Rizzo has been part of The Washington Post’s three-person Fact Checker team since 2018. He told KidsPost that he and co-workers Glenn Kessler and Meg Kelly are a bit like referees when a politician says or publishes something.

“Was it a foul? Was it not a foul?” Rizzo said. “Someone comes in and looks at all the evidence.”

How do they figure it out? By going through lots of documents and talking to experts.

“I know how to find people,” Rizzo said. That’s partly because he worked as a political reporter in New Jersey for seven years. His experience in local politics prepared him for working on national politics.

“You always want to go with the most authoritative and definitive sources you can find,” Rizzo said. “You want people who can communicate just about the facts, not their opinion.”

Government agencies keep records and gather data, and much of that is available to the public. Fact-checkers are familiar with how to access the information and will do the work most Americans don’t have the time to do. When the team publishes a story or a video, they let readers know which records they have used to investigate.

“It’s very important; we always try to give readers links to all the source materials,” he said.

After looking at documents and talking to experts, Rizzo rates the candidate’s statement on how truthful it is. Instead of using stars the way movie critics do, he gives Pinocchios. (You probably remember that Pinocchio is the children’s book character whose nose grows when he tells a lie.) One Pinocchio would be a mostly true statement. The biggest lie or misleading statement would earn four Pinocchios.

“The reason that we have a scale is in life and in politics it’s not often clear whether something is 100 percent true or false,” he said.

When asked about statements he labeled four Pinocchios in the past few months, Rizzo mentioned one about voter fraud on mail-in ballots. Those ballots are especially important this year because many Americans are voting by mail so they don’t have to wait in line on Election Day and possibly expose themselves to the coronavirus. Voters are required to sign their mail-in ballots.

“The signature is very important. It means that’s you” who filled out the ballot, Rizzo said.

Without a signature, it would be easier for a person to fill out someone else’s ballot. That would be against the law.

“[President] Trump says the Democrats want to take away that requirement. That’s totally false. In no state is anyone trying to get rid of the signature.”

You might wonder what happens next. A referee could penalize a player for a foul, but fact-checkers have no official power. Politicians are aware of the rating system, however, and they don’t like getting Pinocchios.

“Sometimes they [take back] the claim,” Rizzo said. “In some cases the politician will call us, which is rare. We will tell readers that.”

If the candidate agrees to change the message to be accurate before the story publishes, sometimes the team won’t give a Pinocchio rating, Rizzo said. That’s because the process isn’t about catching politicians telling a lie.

“The point is never to punish people,” he said. “The point is to set the record straight for readers.”