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The News Media’s Election Day Responsibility

On election night, media outlets compete to be the first to call the presidential election. That could spell disaster in this pandemic-plagued election.

August 4, 2020
election night
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty

We all know it: this November, we will have an election like no other. Postal delays. A shortage of poll workers. Fewer polling places. Unsheltered lines of waiting voters spaced six feet from one another, stretching for distant blocks, possibly in unpleasant weather.

Ohio’s Republican secretary of state believes it will take weeks to know final results in his state this year, even though Ohio is one of the rare states that actually begins to process mailed ballots before Election Day. Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state expects upwards of three million mailed ballots (in 2016, over 1.2 million mailed ballots were returned.)

In this frightening, destabilizing, unimagined moment, who will be able to sort it all out and tell us the results?

The same people who always tell us. Until the Electoral College meets 41 days later, the American public will learn who won this election from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC, five institutions whose competitive hunger to be the first to call a winner is as natural to them as the next hit is to an addict. And conceivably as dangerous.

Not everyone does it this way. In Australia, a national election commission tallies the votes and, to accommodate mail-in voting, waits 13 days to announce official results. GermanyJapanCanada, and other democracies also place responsibility for collecting, counting, and announcing results in the hands of federal agencies. But in the U.S., our voting laws and procedures can seem like 51 pieces of a crude jigsaw puzzle. And how the networks attempt to assemble that puzzle on November 3 will shape — perhaps irretrievably — the nation’s perception of this most fraught of electoral adventures.

In 2012, when Republican strategist Karl Rove objected to Fox calling the election for Barack Obama, anchor Megyn Kelly marched down the hall to the decision desk — on camera — to make clear to Rove, and to the network’s audience, that he was definitively in error. But this time, absent a genuine landslide, a similar search may find a roomful of statisticians shrugging their shoulders — or making guesses.

With millions of people opting to submit absentee ballots, exit interviews with voters as they leave polling places will be nearly useless. The polling operations that supply data numbers to the networks say they have devised new techniques, never before used in a presidential election, to appraise the mail vote. But the very term “new techniques” hardly fills one with confidence. Anchors and other commentators will no doubt be advising their viewers that little can be known for certain until the absentee votes have been counted. But there will nonetheless be numbers on the screen, numbers showing one candidate leading by certain percentages in various states.

In many cases, those numbers will be utterly meaningless until absentee ballots are counted. Yet come Wednesday morning (perhaps for days afterward) they will still loom like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, lingering long enough to be enlisted in one party’s self-interest, fuel for unfounded charges of fraud. For those states that do not even begin counting absentee votes until after the polls close on November 3, even that hoary built-in qualifier — “only X percent of precincts reporting” — will be pointless. Have absentee votes been counted in these precincts? Or is this just the live voting report? Or is it a mix of both? 

The networks and the news services know what’s on the line. (Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, is already referring to “election week” in his newsletter) The precautions they say they are taking seem admirable. But come election night, discussions of results for many states need to be accompanied by a blast of oral, aural, and visual asterisks. It will be imperative for anchors to intone those words that news people hate to say more than any other, “At this point, we know nothing.” 

They might even consider adding a third color to their snazzy electronic maps and white boards. As the polls close, they can confidently paint Wyoming, Alabama, and similarly Republican states red, and render Hawaii, Vermont, and other deeply Democratic states blue. But for every place else, they would be wise to use a color that by its very nature suggests the uncertainty of the networks’ enterprise on election night 2020 — a clear, firm, and utterly noncommittal gray.

Even so, the pumping adrenaline of election nights past will not magically disappear. The competitive wish to call the election before the other guy does, or even just to call individual swing states, could threaten whatever sober plans the networks are making today. This year, perhaps they should consider an altogether different measure of journalistic success: maybe being last — being certain that all the votes that count have been counted — should be their goal.

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