Al Gore cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000. Actually, it was the hanging chads on Florida ballots. No, it was the Supreme Court’s Republican justices. When you lose the presidency by 537 votes in a single state as Gore did in 2000, there is a lot of blame to go around.
Among the possibilities is election-night coverage. As the Bush-Gore returns came in, it became clear that the outcome could be determined by a single state. By 10 pm in the East, Florida was the focus. At 2:16 a.m., Fox News declared Bush the winner in Florida. ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC repeated that call within minutes. Newspapers, which had held back on the morning edition, rushed into print with variations on the headline “Bush Beats Gore.”
As it happened, the Florida outcome was still in doubt and, as the returns trickled in, Bush’s lead steadily shrunk, which led to weeks of legal maneuvering. Throughout this time, Gore was on the defensive. The implication was that Gore, with the help of lawyers, was trying to steal the election. The narrative weakened Gore’s claim to the presidency and affected how Americans responded, how the recount was handled, and perhaps even how the courts ruled.
The 2020 election returns could also be marred by a rush to judgment. An unprecedented number of mail-in ballots will have been cast and it’s questionable whether even as many as half will have been counted by election night — some states (listed here) don’t allow officials to start the count before Election Day. Whether states honor ballots postmarked on Election Day — some do, some don’t — could also affect the point at which the outcome is known. And all of this will play out in front of an electorate worried about the election’s integrity – a doubt fueled on the left by Republican efforts to suppress the vote and on the right by Donald Trump’s claim that mail-in voting is riddled with fraud.
Adding to the confusion will be the differing voting habits of Republicans and Democrats. According to polls, most of the Democratic vote will be cast by mail whereas most of the Republican vote will be cast in person. If so, the Republican vote will be overrepresented in the initial returns while the Democratic vote will be overrepresented in later ones. Trump could be ahead in the early returns even if he were to lose by a large margin when all the votes are counted. If that happens, he’ll almost surely claim that the election was stolen.
How should the journalists — particularly those at the networks — address the vote count this year? How can they help to defuse a potentially volatile situation?
One step would be to focus on the electoral vote count rather than the popular vote count. Beyond the fact that the electoral vote is ultimately the determining vote, a focus on it will highlight the mail-in ballots yet-to-be-counted and, in general, slow the call. It will allow the easy calls like Alabama and New York while leaving enough states in play to push back anything resembling a final national call. And state calls should be delayed until even the outside possibility of a wrong call is eliminated. If Biden were to win nationally by a huge margin, as some polls suggest, a slowdown won’t disguise the final result. But if the race is close, it will prevent either side from credibly claiming victory, which, along with the networks’ cautionary words, will affect Americans’ perceptions of the rightful winner.
When presenting popular vote results, context will matter more than ever — the percentage of the statewide vote reflected in the count, the rough percentage of outstanding ballots that are mail-in ballots and when they can be expected to tabulated, the locations within the state that have reported returns, the tendency of these locations to vote Republican or Democratic, and so on. Although it might be too much to expect, the networks could present the accumulating raw vote totals as spinning dials much like the National Debt Clock near Times Square. Doing so would signal that there are many more votes yet to come and could dissuade viewers from hasty conclusions. In all cases, the reporting of actual vote returns should be accompanied by an estimate of the percentage of the total state vote — including mail-in ballots — that the returns represent.
Transparency and prudence are vital. In addition to periodically informing their viewers of counting procedures and delays, the networks will need to be unusually careful in their use of exit polls, doubly so if mail-in voters are excluded. Even demographic breakdowns of vote preferences will be skewed if that’s the case. And the networks must avoid becoming a megaphone for attempts by either side — and there will be many such attempts — to call the outcome before it’s known.
Social media will be rife with misinformation about the vote count. If the networks stick to known facts and well-founded claims, they will dampen the effect. Fox News is key. It will likely have the largest network audience and the most partisan one. Judging from Fox’s past election-night coverage, Fox’s election-night narrative is likely to be roughly in line with that of the other networks. But if Fox were to tell the story of a Trump victory, and the final results proved otherwise, America’s streets could turn violent. Never in our history has the editorial judgment of a single network been so important.
Concerns about election-night reporting will evaporate if the national vote is heavily one-sided. If that were to happen, much of the suspense, and worry, will dissolve. Florida, which went for Trump in 2016, could be the tipoff. Although many of its ballots are cast by mail, Florida allows the counting to start in advance of Election Day. Unless the election is a cliffhanger, the Florida outcome should be known before Americans go to bed on election night. If Biden were to win in Florida, Trump might still claim victory on election night but it won’t carry much punch. His path to an electoral college victory would have become far narrower than the needle that he threaded in 2016.
Although some of their election-night audience has been lost to social and entertainment media, the television networks remain America’s front-row seat for election returns. They were unprepared to handle the vote returns in the 2000 presidential election. This year, there is no excuse. The networks have been on notice for weeks that the early returns could be confusing, muddled, and possibly at odds with the final count. After the reporting debacle in 2000, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw declared, “We don’t just have egg on our face–we have an omelet.” If the networks get the 2020 outcome wrong, or fuel misperceptions of the outcome, they will have done more than break a few eggs. It will damage, perhaps irreparably, Americans’ trust in elections. And if street rioting ensues, the networks will need to periodically pause and turn the camera on themselves.
Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the recently published Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself? Journalist’s Resource plans to post a new installment of his Election Beat 2020 series every week leading up to the 2020 U.S. election. Patterson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Election Night Coverage by the Networks,” Committee on Energy and Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives,” February 14, 2001.
Michael P. McDonald and Matthew P. Thornburg, “Interview Mode Effects: The Case of Exit Polls and Early Voting,” Public Opinion Quarterly 76, 2012.
Stephen Pettigrew and Charles Stewart III, “Protecting the Perilous Path of Election Returns: From the Precinct to the News,” SSRN, Feb. 7, 2020.
Joseph E. Uscinski, “Too Close to Call? Uncertainty and Bias in Election-Night Reporting,” Social Science Quarterly 88, 2007.
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