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Election Night Coverage Is Broken. In 2020, It Could Be Dangerous

In a presidential election likely to take weeks or months to decide, the race to name a winner on Nov. 3 could do tremendous damage to the integrity of the vote-counting process.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.)

This commentary is part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

Every four years, the glitterati of American political journalism gather to celebrate what has become their most hallowed tradition: the night of a presidential election. In normal years, the pageantry that infuses the evening’s coverage can feel silly but benign, like a democracy-themed Times Square ball drop. In 2020, the media’s insistence on treating election night as a televised coronation ceremony could very well plunge the country into chaos.

Amid a pandemic with a death toll quickly approaching a quarter-million Americans, around 80 million people are expected to vote by mail this year, more than doubling the volume from 2016 and comprising perhaps half of all ballots to be cast. It will probably not surprise you to learn that crumbling state election administration systems are ill-prepared to handle such an unprecedented deluge of paperwork. In the swing states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, officials can’t even legally begin to process these ballots until Election Day, let alone count them. In Michigan, the legislature gave some clerks a one-day grace period for this year only. 

Meanwhile, President Trump has spent the last several months sowing doubt about the integrity of mail-in voting, falsely claiming on Twitter that it will yield “the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history.” Like the rest of the Republican Party’s voter suppression platform, this is an intentional choice. Polling indicates that Democrats are likelier than Republicans to cast their votes by mail, which presents a candidate like Trump, who trails in every national poll of note, with a tremendous opportunity: If things look promising for him on election night—if it is anything less than a decisive Biden victory—he can declare himself the winner, delivering a triumphant speech to a roomful of exuberant, maskless White House aides. Then, should Trump’s lead dwindle in the days that follow, he can decry the crush of ballots as illegitimate, reframing the anodyne process of totaling votes as the handiwork of deep state operatives hell-bent on stealing his hard-earned second term.

This phenomenon—and the decidedly uneven media coverage of it—would hardly be unique to 2020. Law professor Edward Foley has dubbed it the “blue shift”: same-day election returns that favor Republicans and perhaps yield Republican leads that night, followed by Democratic gains that narrow or even erase them. In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema at first appeared to lose her bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona to Republican Martha McSally on election night, only to prevail by a close-yet-comfortable margin six days later. Her race was one of several that prompted many pundits to take to the airwaves and declare the evening to be a letdown for Democrats. (“Heartbreaking,” CNN’s Van Jones said.) The 2018 midterms proved to be the party’s biggest wave election in more than 40 years.

Trump, as you might expect, did not take this development well. News of McSally’s eroding margin prompted him to make scary-sounding allegations of “electoral corruption.” In Florida, where the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races went to automatic recounts with both Republican candidates holding slim leads over their Democratic counterparts, he was willing to leave nothing to chance. “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere,” Trump wrote. “Must go with Election Night!” It feels safe to assume that the president will only make this argument more vociferously if his own political future is at stake.

What Trump and the Republicans understand is that the fewer mail-in ballots that are counted, the likelier they are to eke out an illusory, voter-suppression aided victory—and that the more decisively he seems to win on election night, the more rhetorical appeal their unhinged conspiracy theories will carry. Polling shows that more than three-quarters of likely Republican voters will trust the president if he decides to name a winner in the election. Already, the party is assembling a sprawling web of lawyers to challenge “overtime” ballots anywhere they deem it convenient. 

At the same time, Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power, and claimed that the “only way” he loses is if the election is “rigged.” During last month’s debate, the president continued to flirt with right-wing paramilitary groups that have made clear their willingness to resort to violence in his name, and urged his acolytes to go to polling places and “watch very carefully” for instances of the sort of fraud he fervently imagines exists. I do not mean this metaphorically: An indignant Trump tweet of a cable news clip that shows key states going red on Tuesday and turning blue on Sunday is the sort of thing that could get people killed. 

All this means that the standard playbook for covering an election is now a dangerous anachronism. On past Election Days, starting before dawn, news outlets have rolled out wall-to-wall coverage replete with soaring musical cues, dizzying graphics, and breathless countdowns to the next set of poll closures. Running tallies at the bottom of the screen tracked each presidential candidate’s progress as they inched toward the elusive 270-vote threshold required to win the Electoral College. The spectacle would reach its frenetic crescendo in the wee hours of the morning, when the anchor turns to the camera and announces that they can, at long last, project who will become the next president of the United States.

The names vary, of course, but the tropes are reliable: CNN’s John King curates a firehose of data, swiping states, counties, and districts across a gigantic screen like a harried meteorologist tracking a series of interlocked warm and cold fronts. Producers eagerly debut the shiniest new tools in their toolboxes, from virtual 3D renderings of the Capitol dome to a cheerfully surreal hologram of Black Eyed Peas frontman (“All this technology,” he marveled to Anderson Cooper, live from an Obama campaign watch party in 2008. “I’m being beamed to you, like it’s ‘Star Wars.’”) Wolf Blitzer buzzes around a studio the size of an airplane hangar, occasionally making room for input from an overstuffed jury box of pundits, strategists, and, for some accursed reason, Rick Santorum. All of their trenchant analysis invariably boils down to, more or less, “I don’t know. Wait and see?” 

Every element of these productions is carefully calibrated to prevent anxious viewers from feeling like it’s safe to look away, even for a moment: Constantly refreshing chyrons at the bottom of the screen tantalize the leading candidate’s supporters with the prospect of victory, while the prominently displayed percentage of votes counted metric reassures the underdog that hope is not lost. The infamously jittery New York Times 2016 election needle is maybe the pinnacle of the media’s obsessive efforts to assign a precise estimate of the outcome to each passing second as the night barrels inexorably toward its thrilling conclusion.

This year, however, that thrilling conclusion may be a long way off. During the primaries in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which have traditionally relied heavily on in-person voting, officials took nearly a week to finish tallying the votes. In Georgia, where two Senate seats are up for grabs this fall, they needed a week and a half. 

Thanks to a patchwork quilt of discordant state laws, sorting out this general election will be even more complicated. In some states, absentee ballots are considered timely if received after Election Day as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, which means millions of votes for one presidential candidate or the other could still be in transit by the time polling places close. At this point, “Election Day” is itself a misnomer; many people have already voted, and their votes will continue to trickle in well past midnight on Nov. 3.

A handful of states, aware of the status quo’s democracy-imperiling implications, are taking steps to relax their existing deadlines, and watchdog groups are urging media outlets to make detailed plans to protect competitive journalists from internal and external pressure to make premature calls. A bill proposed by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida (and backed by Foley of “blue shift” fame) would postpone the appointed dates for designating electors and convening the Electoral College, recognizing that every additional day could prove essential to getting this result right. 

Even if such a bill were to pass through both chambers of Congress and land on President Trump’s desk sometime in the next three weeks, however—and I would not hold my breath—the infrastructure necessary to determine the winner of a close contest within the span of a single 24-hour news cycle simply does not exist. 

The waking nightmare that was the 2000 presidential election serves as a preview of what the next several months could look like. On election night, networks at first called a tight race in Florida for Democratic nominee Al Gore. A few hours later, they changed their minds, projecting that Republican nominee George W. Bush would win the state’s 25 electoral votes and, thus, the White House. Immediately, Bush’s grin was splashed across TV screens all over the country, flanked by stock images of the American flag, the presidential seal, and the White House. Cameras swept over crowds of jubilant Bush supporters who had erupted at the news. 

“That’s it,” a solemn Dan Rather declared on CBS News. “It isn’t over ‘til it’s over, but it’s over, and Bush wins it.” Gore, as is customary, dutifully called his rival to concede.

As the night wore on, however, votes continued to pour in from Florida’s Democratic strongholds, whittling Bush’s lead down to almost nothing. The networks were (again) forced to withdraw their projections, prompting a sheepish Gore to call an apoplectic Bush to rescind his concession. Americans woke up the next morning with no new president and, perhaps even worse, no clear idea of what resolving this conflict would look like.

Over the frenzied month of legal warfare that followed, Bush’s TV win, brief though it was, had a lingering effect on public opinion. Gallup polling found approval numbers for Gore and his campaign dropping slightly, while approval of Bush and his team’s handling of the crisis ticked upwards. By Nov. 19, as Florida officials continued to count votes, 27 percent of those polled said they approved of Gore but not Bush, compared to 35 percent who said they approved of Bush but not Gore. This is not an insignificant swing: On Election Day, voters had cast around half a million more ballots for Gore. Two weeks later, with the outcome still very much in doubt, a restless, impatient electorate was increasingly ready for the mess to be over.

All the way up until Dec. 12, when the Supreme Court’s five Republican justices gave the White House to Bush in a shameless display of partisan hackery, it was impossible to divorce the legal wrangling from the fallout from the election night debacle. An independent report commissioned by CNN would later characterize the media’s coverage as a “news disaster,” blaming its early calls for treating Bush’s victory as fait accompli and portraying Gore as a “challenger” and a “sore loser” trying to “steal” the election. For those who watched the seesaw returns at home, the sudden prospect of a Gore presidency felt like overturning the result. A Bush presidency merely affirmed it. 

The media has to cover the COVID-19 election differently. States that might seem safe to project in any other year will not be projectable on election night, when officials will have yet to receive an untold number of ballots, let alone count them. The results, even after polling places close and 100 percent of precincts report, may look nothing like the results at the end of the week, or the month, or the year. As the painstaking work of vote-counting continues, there will be legal challenges and court orders, and appeals of those orders, and appeals of those orders. A candidate who commands an insurmountable lead on Tuesday may trail by Thursday and then suddenly retake the lead on Saturday. Covering this election will not be like covering a Super Bowl; it will be more like covering the first day of the Tour de France.

I understand that it is deeply unsatisfying for journalists to unveil the dreaded “TOO CLOSE TO CALL” graphic, and that there are only so many hours that a visibly glum Dana Bash can vamp before shrugging at the camera and reluctantly signing off for the night with no White House winner in sight. But the quadrennial race to print the headline, put up the chyron, and send out the definitive push alert risks further undermining an election that is already fraught with enough uncertainty. The more willing journalists are to stay out of the way in 2020, the likelier it is that some semblance of this fragile democracy will miraculously survive it.

Jay Willis is a senior contributor at The Appeal.