The Media’s Big Test Comes Election Night: With Huge Swings in Results Possible, Including a Possible 21-Point Swing in Pennsylvania from Trump +16 to Biden +5, The Message About Early Returns Must Be “Too Early to Call” Not That One Candidate is Leading in Early Returns

The pandemic has drastically shifted many people to voting by mail, but President Trump’s statements against voting by mail has created a partisan divide: more Democrats and independents are voting by mail and more Republicans are voting in person. Depending upon how states report their election returns, a state that starts out with a big Biden or Trump lead could reverse as more mail-in or in person votes get added into the mix.

The problem is especially dramatic in Pennsylvania because that state’s Republican legislature has blocked the early processing of absentee ballots (in contrast, in Florida we will have most of those absentee votes counted by the time the evening is over). According to calculations by FiveThirtyEight, we could be in a situation where Trump is ahead by as much as 16 points on election night in Pennsylvania, only to see a loss of 5 points or more when all the ballots are counted within about a week of the election: a 21-point swing.

Saying that a candidate is leading when the votes outstanding could skew one way or the other is a recipe for disaster, because supporters may believe the election is stolen with such dramatic shifts in voting results. That’s why it is crucial for media to give a “too early to call” message on election night in those states where the outstanding ballots easily could shift the results of the race.

Here’s the full set of our recommendation on this topic from our cross-ideological, cross-disciplinary group in our Fair Elections During a Crisis report:

Best practices for election night coverage

Irresponsible media coverage risks endangering the perceived legitimacy of the election. News outlets need to prepare the public to understand a process that is unlikely to provide a quick resolution and whose results are likely to change as votes are tallied. We offer the following best practices as recommendations to the media:
• Prepare to report the results as “too early to call;” emphasize the need for a careful count rather than reporting that the timeline reflects an institutional failure
• Explain more votes will be counted after all precincts report due to mail ballots • Report estimates of expected votes outstanding or other information besides percentage of precincts reported (but beware of changes in those estimates, which may confuse people and create fears of fraud)
• Explain why shifts in vote margins are routine as counts of mail ballots are conducted and not indicative of fraud
• Avoid putting isolated events and unverified claims into live coverage
(especially TV) but be prepared to debunk viral misinformation if it reaches
large audiences or is amplified by national politicians or political figures
• Forecasts and exit poll projections are frequently incorrect; avoid emphasizing them for fear of affecting turnout or causing unfounded suspicions of fraud if they miss the mark
• Have election procedure experts on call to help inform reporters and editors

Journalists should report that vote counts continuing beyond election day are normal and that errors and delays are not necessarily indicators of nefarious intent.
Opportunistic elites will seek to take advantage of this confusion, particularly if it can harm the standing of the side that is likely to win. Irresponsible coverage that amplifies such claims runs the risk of encouraging more fundamental challenges to accepting the outcome of the election itself, a compact that is at the very heart of democracy.

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