New Rules needed for media coverage of election night and beyond

Elections have long since ceased to be a one day event in America. Most states offer early voting in some form, and California and Arizona in particular offer relatively easy early voting by mail which invariably leads to voters turning in their mail-in ballots on Election Day. That in turn requires time for election officials to verify voter signatures and to count the ballots. It takes time to do it correctly, fairly and accurately.

The numbers the media breathlessly reports in their election night coverage and endlessly speculates about in their media consortium projections are actually a disservice to Americans on Election Day. The media want finality in the limited time frame they have set aside for election night coverage, which is unrealistic and impossible.

It can lead to candidates and political parties leading in those early election night results later concocting unsupported wild conspiracy theories about election fraud when ballots verified and counted in the days and weeks after election night swing to their opponent, as has occurred here in Arizona with Rep. Martha McSally, The Arizona Republican Party and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in the U.S. Senate race.

The ultimate consequence of this is to undermine public confidence in our election system and election results.

David Atkins at the Political Animal blog writes, Counting All the Votes Is Not a Surprise or a Rollercoaster:

The tropes of post-election media coverage are so trite that news junkies could recite them by heart: some races are called early, some are “too close to call,” some networks jump to call races before the others. Journalists like  Dave Weigel have become famous for memes like “it’s all about turnout” and “crucial Waukesha county.” Data journalists like Steve Kornacki pull up big maps and tell us what votes are coming from where and who is likely to win based on comparative percentages.

But at the end of the day, TV networks want to send their viewers to bed with answers, journalists need definitive copy for the Wednesday morning edition and op-ed writers must deliver their scheduled smart takes. The result is that election night coverage is considered the default version of events, and ballots counted in the days and weeks afterward an afterthought or exciting aberration. States like California that make expansive efforts to count every eligible vote and give voters maximum opportunities to make their voices heard are resented as disrupters of the natural order, inconveniences to the unity of the narrative.

So when results change in close races several days after Election Tuesday, it is treated as a remarkable phenomenon. Headlines describe lead changes as “roller coasters” and “dramatic comebacks.” Unsurprisingly, when Republicans find themselves as usual on the short end of such reversals their politicians and media outlets increasingly insinuate dark allegations to their base about voter fraud and ballot stuffing. After all, why else would these late results continually go against them? They feel that contests rightfully won on election night are being taken from them.

See, Trump, Republicans call vote count into question amid tight McSally-Sinema race for Senate:

President Donald Trump and Republicans in Arizona and nationally are stoking claims of deliberate election fraud in the state’s U.S. Senate race as Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema await results of a vote that could swing in either’s favor.

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 3.39.30 PM

In a tweet, Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale added:

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 3.04.12 PM

No group has brought forward allegations of specific criminal activity, although one Republican lawsuit addressed an equity issue over how early-ballot signatures are verified.

* * *

Amy Chan, former state elections director under Republican Secretary of State Ken Bennett, tweeted, “Unfounded allegations of voter fraud are totally irresponsible and should rightly be condemned because they shake voter confidence & can affect future participation. Voter fraud in my experience is almost nonexistent.”

“As Sinema’s lead has grown, GOP officials nationally have suggested that Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, was “cooking the books” for Sinema. That accusation comes as the GOP has suggested outright fraud in Florida in close-elections there.” Kyrsten Sinema widens lead again over Martha McSally in pivotal day for Arizona’s U.S. Senate race. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, offered no evidence for the NRSC’s book-cooking assertion on the political shows.

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 3.06.57 PM

And the press generally does the truth no favors in this regard. If a race is too close to call and hundreds of thousands of mostly urban and provisional ballots remain outstanding, the press will treat the race as an open question even when the Republican is behind, leaving conservatives to believe that results could go either direction even when they invariably will not.  Just yesterday an NPR show in Southern California nonsensically suggested that despite the widening lead for Democrat Harley Rouda against Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher, in California’s 48th congressional district, Rohrabacher could still “come back” to retake it based on the (mostly Democratic-leaning) precincts and provisional ballots remaining.

Actually, no. Rouda defeated Putin’s puppet Rohrabacher. Rouda defeats Rohrabacher in Southern California.

This type of electoral coverage must change. Readers, viewers and listeners deserve the truth and an accurate prediction of reality.

The reality is that if a Republican has a small lead on election night, they often lose that lead when all the votes from the cities and the provisionals are counted. This should not be treated as dramaBy calling these results “rollercoasters” or “surprises” the press plays into the hands of Republicans who make false accusations of voter fraud or ballot stuffing. When in truth it’s simply just counting votes.

Republicans have chosen to make rural whites and gated community types in smaller precincts their base, while making political enemies of city dwellers and the economically marginalized. That means Democrats will dominate among urban precincts and provisional voters who frequently change jobs and housing. Those votes take longer to count. Usually days, sometimes weeks. But it’s just basic math.

That phenomenon, so often glossed over, deserves to be explained in full on election night and during the days that follow. Races that are anywhere close to even on the night after the election should be presented with that information as context, rather than being treated as an unknown mystery when Democrats gain leads as the count continues.

In all likelihood the members of the nonpartisan press believe they’re being objective and unbiased by failing to point out the basic politics of vote counts. But they’re only inadvertently fanning the flames of right-wing conspiracy theories.

In the age of Trump, these conspiracy theories now have increasingly negative consequences. Republicans from Arizona to Florida to the White House are loudly blaring that elections are being stolen from them by simply counting the votes of people they marginalize, and the press isn’t doing the job they should be doing to inform news consumers otherwise.

A healthy and informed democracy requires a full airing of the truth, even if that truth is politically inconvenient for one of its political parties. Even if that truth means that determining the actual outcome of the election may be inconvenient for editors’ deadlines and for cable news drama.

Election law expert Rick Hasen warns at Slate that what Trump and Republicans are doing in 2018 is laying the groundwork to dispute an election loss in 2020. What’s Happening in Florida Is a Nightmare. 2020 Could Be So Much Worse. (excerpts):

With Florida set this week to undertake a massive and massively politicized recount in the critical races for governor and senator, the way that election fight has played out so far has been an absolute nightmare. Perhaps most terrifyingly of all, the 2018 Florida elections have demonstrated the real possibility that President Donald Trump might attempt to ignore an unfavorable 2020 election outcome if the result is a slim loss by the president, a possibility that should give us all chills.

There’s no mincing words: We are entering into a dangerous new phase in the voting wars. Last week, various election calamities were fueled by incendiary and unsupported claims by Trump and others of fraud, by pockets of incompetence of election administration, by partisanship in election administration, and by continued fundamental defects in how our elections are conducted.

The new voting wars threaten to undermine the very foundation of American democracy: that election officials can fairly and accurately count ballots and that they can declare a winner whom the losers will accept as legitimate. Recent developments portend a very rocky 2020 election. If Trump is ahead in his re-election bid on the night of the election, only to lose that lead as more ballots in larger—mostly Democratic—counties are counted through a normal process in the days and weeks after Election Day, it seems reasonable to be concerned that he will contest such a legitimate vote. We don’t know if he would even vacate his office in such a scenario, triggering the possibility of a real constitutional crisis.

* * *

It is no surprise that Democrats gain votes later in the counting process in part because big cities tend to contain lots of Democratic votes, and given their population, cities take much longer to count. This is why in Arizona Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema has overtaken Republican candidate Martha McSally as votes continue to be counted in Maricopa County and elsewhere. All seems above board despite wholly unsupported Republican claims that Democratic election officials are “cooking the books.” Democrats continue to make gains in House races in California’s Orange County as well, in an orderly and fair process being conducted by a Republican elected official with a stellar reputation.

There is also a Democratic skew in ballots that need extra checking to count. As the careful work of professor Ned Foley has shown, in close election races that involve the counting of contested and provisional ballots, there now tends to be a “big blue shift” toward Democrats at the end of the count. That’s because, for a variety of reasons Foley has described, these ballots are more likely to be cast in heavily Democratic counties.

Although nerve-wracking, there’s nothing at all nefarious about any of this protracted countingBut that has not stopped extremely irresponsible and unsupported claims by Trump and others about “stealing elections.” Trump has tweeted that the counts on election night are the ones to be accepted and claimed that elections are “infected” when later vote counts are included. And Trump is not alone: Rick Scott, for example, has claimed without any evidence that there has been fraud in Broward County and that Democrats are trying to steal the election from him. Trump appears upset that Republicans in Arizona have not piled on to claims of vote fraud.

Put all of these obvious voting issues together, and it’s a toxic and volatile mix. Thanks to Trump and others, Republicans are skeptical of vote totals that come in on and after Election Day in what used to be an unremarkable and mostly orderly process. Thanks to incompetence and lack of transparency of [some election officials], people have reason to worry about the accuracy of results. Hyperpolarization, decentralization, late litigation, outside attempted hacking of voter registration databases, and lack of adequate funding for machine upgrades add to concerns about the fairness and legitimacy of the process.

The potential for Trump to use his current playbook to try to stay in power even if a fair count would show he has lost should be clear at this point. It’s not too late, however, to make a number of fixes before 2020. Lots could be done to make vote results go faster in large counties, but it would take considerable resources. Bad election officials need to be removed. And unsupported incendiary claims of voter fraud need to be condemned by both sides of the aisle.

I’m not holding my breath, because I and others have been sounding this alarm since 2000, and not nearly enough has changed. Without more changes, the voting wars next time could endanger our very democracy itself.





Support volunteer citizen journalism at the Blog for Arizona with a donation today. Your secure contribution keeps the Blog online and sustains a free press in Arizona.


3 responses to “New Rules needed for media coverage of election night and beyond

  1. As a former poll inspector and a person that watched the RTA fiasco where the system just didn’t work nor truly confirmed cause procedure in a challenge was not followed, and having watched how early balloting has made it not only more difficult for the candidates to run but also has made this longer counting process and many people hours to count and make sure as many people as possible have their votes counted before reasonable results can be posted, think going back to people having to go the polls to vote would solve many of these problems. The absentee ballots are good for service people and those who can not make it the polls. But everyone else should go to the polls on voting day. It is their civic duty as well as an honor to be able to vote. When people went to the polls the count done by the machines got the results out much faster. AZ should go back to direct voting.

    • For Sure Not Tom

      Nope.

      This is a very, very bad idea and a good example of why some people think Green Party candidates are a little whacko.

      Leaving work and losing income to stand in line regardless of the time it takes or the weather is a sure fire way to suppress votes.

      I believe you are a former Green Party candidate, but suppressing votes is the GOP’s thing.

      We do not need to return to the 1800’s.

    • Or see how Oregon does it. All ballots are mailed out and must be mailed back in and received by 8 pm on election night, or dropped in a ballot box by 8 pm. They manage to get the results out before the night is done.