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The Media Can’t Treat Election Night 2020 Like Years Past

Because of mail ballots, there’s a good chance the winner of the presidential race won’t be declared on election night, so the TV networks need to manage expectations.

June 30, 2020
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Mecaleha/Getty

Elec­tion night is at the center of the open­ing chapter in The Making of the Pres­id­ent 1960, the most influ­en­tial campaign book ever writ­ten. In it, Theodore White conveys the dramatic sweep of a close elec­tion as TV reports follow the time zones from Connecti­cut (safe for John F. Kennedy) to Cali­for­nia (a tossup in Richard Nixon’s home state). The chapter ends with JFK nervously pacing the lawn at Hyan­nis­port at 4:20 in the morn­ing unable to “tell whether he had won or lost.”

Elec­tion nights have often been fraught with drama. As a long-ago junior campaign staffer, I still recall the thrill at 3:30 in the morn­ing in 1976 when the networks called Missis­sippi (yes, Missis­sippi) for Jimmy Carter to give him an Elect­oral College major­ity. And anyone who stayed up late to watch the returns in 2000 remem­bers that stun­ning moment when the TV networks rescin­ded their 2:20 a.m. call of Flor­ida for George W. Bush and labeled the state “too close to call.” As a result, it took a Supreme Court decision to determ­ine the outcome of that race.

There was a hunger for elec­tion night returns long before the arrival of tele­vi­sion or even radio. On the night of Pres­id­ent Woodrow Wilson’s narrow 1916 reelec­tion victory, for example, the New York World described the mood along Broad­way: “Elec­tion returns were served with the eats; they were handed out with the drinks. They were part of the programme at the theatres. Returns were coming from every­where.”

For well over a century, elec­tion night has been a pageant of demo­cracy. Since the days of anchors like Chet Hunt­ley and David Brinkley, TV broad­casts — with their red-and-blue maps, their exit polls, and their ever-chan­ging numbers — are how Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans, winners and losers alike, have learned and accep­ted the results of a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

Until now.

Unless the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion is a blowout, the pandemic will likely play havoc with our elec­tion night rituals. The explos­ive growth of absentee ballots and their slow count will mean days or weeks of uncer­tainty if the elec­tion is as close as 2016, when six states (Michigan, New Hamp­shire, Wiscon­sin, Pennsylvania, Flor­ida, and Minnesota) were decided by less than 2 percent­age points. Long lines, malfunc­tion­ing machines, and attempts at voter suppres­sion are also apt to add to the contro­versy and confu­sion of a Covid-19 elec­tion. As a recent Wash­ing­ton Post head­line put it, “Day-of results unlikely Nov. 3.”

While there are many worthy propos­als to limit the damage to demo­cracy from a slow-report­ing and conten­tious elec­tion, almost all of them focus on proced­ures for voting and citizen educa­tion. But, in many ways, everything depends on how the TV networks and other major news outlets handle elec­tion night. In these troubled times, any uncer­tain outcome is apt to spawn conspir­acy theor­ies. Already, Pres­id­ent Trump is anti­cip­at­ing elec­tion night with evid­ence-free tweets like this one from Monday: “Because of MAIL-IN BALLOTS, 2020 will be the most RIGGED Elec­tion in our nations history — unless this stupid­ity is ended.”

The networks and the Asso­ci­ated Press have long been metic­u­lous about not call­ing states on elec­tion night until they are certain of the outcome, based on both exit polls and actual returns. In a memor­able moment from 2012, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly dramat­ic­ally walked down a long corridor to the network’s decision desk after Karl Rove chal­lenged on air the fact that Pres­id­ent Obama had been named as the winner in Ohio. Despite Rove’s obstin­ate denial of real­ity, Obama did, in fact, carry Ohio by 165,000 votes.

At the same time, TV networks hate protrac­ted uncer­tainty. Think of how rare it is to hear a tele­vi­sion pundit say the near-forbid­den words, “I don’t know.” During my lone stint as an elec­tion night comment­ator for ABC News online in 2012, I real­ized how tempt­ing it is to get ahead of the story and offer a verdict based on incom­plete returns. Obser­va­tions such as “It’s look­ing like a good night for Candid­ate X” or “From what we know right now, I would certainly prefer to be Candid­ate Y” can inad­vert­ently create mislead­ing narrat­ives.

Inter­pret­ing partial results in 2020 will be tricky. Exit polls are geared to in-person voting, although they have been tweaked in recent years because of the shift to early and mail ballot­ing. Swing states like Pennsylvania lack a tradi­tion of heavy absentee voting, so it will be diffi­cult to figure out whether Demo­crats or Repub­lic­ans are dispro­por­tion­ately voting by mail.

The danger lies in the like­li­hood that the final results in some hotly contested states will prove signi­fic­antly differ­ent than the numbers prom­in­ently displayed on elec­tion night. Academ­ics have docu­mented in elec­tions dating back to 1948 the so-called “blue shift” in which late-arriv­ing absentee ballots and provi­sional ballots tend to favor Demo­crats. But Covid-19 may alter these histor­ical patterns since differ­ent demo­graphic groups may be voting by mail.

On elec­tion night, the TV networks are almost certain to add caution­ary notes to their cover­age about how vote totals are prelim­in­ary and subject to change with the arrival of mailed-in ballots. But these network public service announce­ments, well-inten­tioned as they may be, are apt to get lost amid the excite­ment of elec­tion night cover­age.

The most import­ant thing that the networks can do to combat conspir­acy theor­ies is to change how they display elec­tion night returns. Tradi­tion­ally, the networks show the gyrat­ing numbers as a percent­age of precincts report­ing. But that approach has proven inad­vert­ently decept­ive since precincts in some states only report in-person votes and others exclude late-arriv­ing absentee ballots. But in their cover­age of last Tues­day’s primary elec­tions — despite the massive shift to absentee ballots thanks to Covid-19 — the New York Times main­tained the ludicrous fiction that 50 percent of the precincts in the closely-watched Kentucky Demo­crat Senate primary had repor­ted, even though this count only included in-person ballots.

Instead, the networks should display the returns as a percent­age of the estim­ated turnout. Using polls, absentee ballot requests, and actual returns, the networks are soph­ist­ic­ated enough to come reas­on­ably close on elec­tion night in predict­ing the total number of votes cast in each state. It would make a vast differ­ence if voters know that even though a pres­id­en­tial candid­ate is ahead by, say, 50,000 votes in Wiscon­sin at 2:00 in the morn­ing, an estim­ated 38 percent of the ballots in the state remain uncoun­ted. 

In normal times, tele­vi­sion networks should not be expec­ted to be the final bulwark guar­an­tee­ing that both sides accept elec­tions as legit­im­ate. But the arrival of a pandemic at the height of partisan discord has upen­ded tradi­tional rules. As a result, the elec­tion night 2020 broad­casts may be the most fate­ful for demo­cracy since Philo Farns­worth demon­strated his first tele­vi­sion set in 1927.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.