Expert Commentary

10 tips + 4 story ideas for journalists covering the 2020 presidential election

Here's what a variety of experts say journalists should know or do to prepare themselves and their audiences for Election Day 2020.

(G Witteveen / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Covering a presidential election is challenging even without the problems both journalists and election officials must prepare for this year: a worldwide infectious disease pandemic, extreme political polarization and an avalanche of misinformation that political scholars worry could shake the public’s trust in the nation’s electoral process.

Another key issue that will make the 2020 presidential election particularly difficult: A surge in the number of mail ballots, also known as absentee ballots. Although election administrators in most states have simplified the voting process by allowing voters to mail their completed ballots or bring them to designated drop boxes, securely processing and counting these ballots is much more time consuming. And in many states, election officials cannot start doing either until Election Day, which means it could be days to a week or more before clear winners are identified.

We want to help. So we reached out to a variety of experts — veteran journalists, academic researchers and former government officials — to find out what journalists should know or be doing to prepare themselves and their audiences for Election Day 2020. We got tons of great feedback. These 10 tips are based on those insights.

1. Prepare your audiences for the strong possibility that we won’t know who won the presidential race — or other races — on Nov. 3.

Explain to audiences before Election Day that it could take a while before election officials finish counting ballots and determine a winner, partly because of the extra steps involved with verifying and counting mail ballots. Journalists should note there are differences in when each state allows elections officials to begin processing and counting mail ballots. Those differences could result in significant time lags across states in terms of reporting vote tallies.

In Maryland, for example, the state elections board recently decided to start counting mail ballots on Oct. 1. Florida law allows officials to begin counting them at 7 a.m. on the 22nd day before an election. On the other hand, many states don’t allow the counting of mail ballots until after polls close on Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s also worth noting that vote counts are not official until they have been certified.

Michael Barber, an associate professor of political science and a faculty scholar at Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, urges newsrooms to delay calling the presidential election until it’s clear which candidate — President Donald Trump or his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden — has won.

“Journalists are going to face great pressure to announce a winner on the night of the election,” he told Journalist’s Resource via email. “Resist that pressure.”

2. Establish protocols for reporting election news under this year’s unusual circumstances.

Aside from delaying the declaration of winners in the various races, newsrooms also should decide how they will handle a range of scenarios. For instance:

  • How will journalists protect themselves from COVID-19 while visiting polling places, election offices and other locations throughout the day on Nov. 3?
  • How will journalists gauge whether poll workers, voters and election officials are protecting themselves and the public at voting precincts and election offices?
  • What information can journalists provide on Election Day to keep the public informed without implying or leading audiences to a conclusion about the way an undecided race is leaning?

Need help figuring that out? Multiple organizations offer newsrooms guidance on creating such a plan. The Poynter Institute, for example, released a list of best practices for journalists covering the 2020 election last month. The National Task Force on Election Crises offers recommendations in its new media guide, “Covering the Election Before, During, and After Nov. 3.”

Election SOS created a Scenario Planning Guide to help journalists and newsroom leaders develop a plan for election coverage. Election SOS is a joint project of the American Press Institute, Democracy Fund, Hearken and Trusting News.

3. Educate the public about voting and vote-counting processes early to guard against misinformation campaigns.

Registered voters will have a range of options for casting ballots this year. They can mail their completed ballots or use drop boxes. Prior to Election Day, they also can cast ballots at early voting sites. On Nov. 3, they can vote at their assigned precincts.

Journalists need to inform the public about these options and how a surge in the number of people using mail ballots to avoid COVID-19 will affect the length of time it takes each state to count all of its ballots.

“Voters will be confused,” Thessalia Merivaki, an assistant professor in American politics at Mississippi State University, wrote in an e-mail to JR. “Commit to informing voters on how the process works, and what are their rights when they go to the polls.”

Journalists also should keep in mind that the vote tallies election offices report on election night could skew Republican. Most Trump supporters — 60% — prefer to vote in person on Election Day while most Biden supporters — 58% — prefer mail ballots, according to the Pew Research Center, which conducted a national survey on the issue several weeks ago.

Barber, of Brigham Young, said that explaining the gap between how Republicans and Democrats prefer to vote will help the public understand why vote tallies could initially lean Republican but change and become largely Democratic.

“As more mail-in ballots are counted, the margins in many states are likely to begin shifting towards Democrats,” Barber noted. “This is not fraud, but simply the legally proscribed process of tallying valid ballots cast through the mail.”

He added that some groups will press journalists to treat ballots received after Nov. 3 as “somehow fraudulent or less worthy of being counted fraudulent.”

“They are not,” he said. “State laws, in many cases, allow for mail ballots to be legally received several days after Election Day.”

4. Develop a plan for handling misinformation and avoiding amplifying it.

Journalists likely will encounter a variety of election-related misinformation on Election Day and in the weeks leading up to it. Scholars have warned that fabricated information designed to mislead voters will disrupt the 2020 presidential election.

Some misinformation campaigns probably will try to discourage certain groups of people from voting — social media posts circulating false information about voting times and locations, for example, or the presence of law enforcement at polling places. There might also be exaggerated claims of long lines and violence at voting precincts.

Be prepared for some candidates and party leaders to claim a victory before a clear winner has been identified. Expect conspiracy theories to continue circulating to cast doubt on the election process and vote totals.

Several journalism organizations offer guidance and training on confronting election misinformation. Check out the American Press Institute’s “9 Tips for covering election misinformation.” The API also created the Trusted Elections Network, a network of newsroom leaders, academics and others that has developed a “Guide to Covering Elections and Misinformation.”

A new report from Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, outlines six strategies for combatting misinformation. One of them: Construct a “truth sandwich.” That means stating what is true, followed by the misinformation you’re setting out to refute, and then stating the truth again.

5. Point out whether your state provides ballot drop boxes. Spotlight efforts to limit these ballot boxes in some locations and how that could affect some voter groups.

Voters who worry about sending their mail ballots through the U.S. Postal Service can leave them in drop boxes for election officials to collect in almost every state. Three states do not allow voters to drop off their mail ballots in person: Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, FiveThirtyEight reported earlier this week. The option has generated considerable controversy in some parts of the country.

Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee filed a federal lawsuit over the summer to stop the use of drop boxes in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state. Several weeks ago, the state Supreme Court, ruling on a separate lawsuit, approved their use.

Meanwhile, in Texas, the governor faces legal challenges from several organizations, including  the League of United Latin American Citizens, over his decision to limit ballot boxes to one per county across the sprawling state.

In Florida, “some places have one per county or supervisor of elections,” notes Scott Powers, a political journalist for 30 years who covers statewide politics for Florida Politics. “There are other places where they’ve got [an estimated] 50 of them.”

Want to know which states provide drop boxes and which have systems voters can use to track their mail ballots? The National Conference of State Legislatures keeps tabs on both.

6. Identify and build relationships with trusted sources in advance of the 2020 presidential election.

Former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport says journalists covering the election should seek out the most authoritative sources and develop relationships with them well before Election Day.

“If someone calls a race, you have to have someone to go to in order to double check,” says Rapoport, who is a senior practice fellow this year at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. “Find out who is really going to have the right information and make that connection in advance, so you have somebody to call.”

Because many local election officials use social media to communicate with the public, following them on social media is a good way for journalists to stay on top of election-related activity, says Tammy Patrick, a former federal compliance officer for the Maricopa County Elections Department in Arizona. She’s now a senior advisor to the nonpartisan Democracy Fund’s elections program.

Patrick, who helped Journalist’s Resource with an elections tip sheet in 2018, also recommends journalists take advantage of election events prior to Election Day — a public testing of voting machines, for instance — to ask questions and get photos and video of election officials using the machines. Elections officials generally announce the dates of these public tests, sometimes in newspaper ads and often via press releases and notices of election office websites.

“Election officials are going to be really swamped as we get closer and closer to Election Day,” Patrick says. “Establish or reestablish relationships and do press calls weekly or daily.”

7. Note the deadline by which mail ballots must be received.

Most states require mail ballots to reach election officials on or by Election Day to be counted. But deadlines vary. In New Hampshire, for instance, ballots must be received by 5 p.m. on Election Day. The deadline in Wisconsin is 8 p.m. on Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which provides state data on receipt and postmark deadlines.

More than half of states do not accept ballots arriving after Election Day, regardless of when they are postmarked. Louisiana requires mail ballots be received the day before Election Day.

To get them to local election offices on time, the U.S. Postal Service recommends voters mail ballots at least a week before the ballot deadline.

8. Know the laws in your state governing poll watchers. Keep an eye out for organized efforts to physically intimidate or discourage voters at polling places.

Poll watchers, also called election observers, are volunteers who help monitor voting at the polls but might also observe other aspects of an election on behalf of a candidate, political party or another organization. State laws vary in terms of who can be poll watchers, what they are authorized to do and whether they must register in advance. While poll watchers are not supposed to interfere with the election process, they can, in some states, challenge a voter’s eligibility.

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Trump and Republican leaders have indicated they want to send law enforcement officials and other citizens to voting precincts to watch for problems, including fraud. This election will be the first since 1980 that a federal court consent decree will not be in place to stop Republican poll watchers from using potentially intimidating “ballot security” methods. In 2018, a federal judge decided not to extend the decree after it ended that year because the Democratic National Committee was unable to show the Republican National Committee had violated the terms of the longstanding pact.

Rapoport suggests journalists stay in contact with local police to ask about protests and possible acts of aggression at voting precincts. He adds, “Is there going to be controversy, potentially even dueling demonstrations and confrontations at the polls? If I were a journalist in a swing state, I would be watching for that a lot.”

9. Monitor election-related lawsuits at the local and national levels.

Election lawyers say the 2020 presidential election might be the most litigated ever, NPR recently reported.

The new coronavirus has prompted a flood of legal challenges in reaction to election officials’ decisions on how to adapt and apply election rules to make sure voters are safe. Some lawsuits, for example, argue it’s unreasonably burdensome amid a pandemic to require political candidates to collect a certain number of voter signatures to qualify to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot Some lawsuits challenge rules on the location of drop boxes for collecting mail ballots and who is allowed to use drop boxes.

Since March, people and organizations have filed more than 300 lawsuits and appeals specifically over election practices arising out of the pandemic, according to the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, created to ensure a safe and equitable 2020 election. In August alone, 31 voting rights lawsuits were filed in federal court, an analysis from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse shows.

Patrick, of the Democracy Fund, says journalists should keep an eye on election-related lawsuits of all sorts in the weeks leading up to and after this year’s election. Some could result in changes to the election process in certain states, including which ballots will and won’t be counted.

“One thing that’s particularly difficult this time around is knowing what the rules of engagement are in the states they [journalists] cover,” Patrick points out. “We have chaos or variation in the rules. In this moment, it’s such a state of flux, mostly because of a lot of court cases and legislative changes are still occurring. Staying on top of that is going to be a big challenge, particularly for national reporters.”

Another way to keep updated: The National Conference of State Legislatures’ monthly newsletter, The Canvass, has been providing updates on election-related litigation.

10. Identify story angles that might have been overlooked.

The experts we consulted offered these story ideas:

  • Ask state officials how they plan to manage the flow of people who arrive at polling places to vote in-person after requesting mail ballots. Will these voters receive provisional ballots? If so, how will election officials verify them — and how might a large number of provisional ballots affect the amount of time it takes to count all ballots?
  • During a regular election, various public and private buildings serve as voting sites. But some buildings ordinarily used for voting remain closed to the public because of COVID-19. What are elections officials doing to ensure there are enough voting sites on Election Day? What are some of the more unusual places — or ways — voters will be casting ballots because of the change? One example: In Johnson County, Iowa, officials have created a drive-through voting service that allows people to remain in their vehicles to mark their ballots.
  • What is the Trump administration doing to prepare for a possible transition to a new president? “Each election, the executive branch tasks a team with preparing for the transition,” explained Barber, of Brigham Young. “They typically start this early in the fall prior to the election, even before anyone knows who will win the election.” He added that even though Trump has failed to commit to a peaceful transition of power, “I imagine there are still some staffers somewhere that are working on the transition, if one were to occur.”
  • Examine the less obvious ways COVID-19 has led to voting barriers. For example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has held far fewer naturalization ceremonies this year, due to safety concerns tied to the pandemic. Patrick, of the Democracy Fund, says that means some people who otherwise could have voted this year won’t participate in the 2020 presidential election. Home evictions occurring during the current economic downturn surely will impact voter registration and participation, she adds. And while it has been more difficult for people to renew driver’s licenses and other forms of identification, it is not yet known whether all states requiring voters to show photo identification will allow them to use expired IDs at the polls. (The National Governors Association recently posted a memo to its website explaining which states that have announced exemptions to their voter ID rules.)

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