Election night. It’s an occasion so definitive in the minds of some Americans that some, in years past, have taken to throwing parties in anticipation of celebrating the declared victor that evening. Americans are used to seeing elections unfold over the course of a single evening, as news organizations are able to project winners with confidence as the results are tallied in real time.
The surge in mail-in ballots this year owing to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic has changed that dynamic. Election officials have forewarned that votes may take several days to count—especially those in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where mail-in ballots can’t be processed until the morning of Election Day. According to the U.S. Elections Project, a nonpartisan data-tracker run by University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, more than 62 million ballots have been cast by mail. That’s part of a staggering 97.6 million–strong early voting turnout—more than two-thirds the votes cast in the entire 2016 election.
The huge volume of mail-in ballots doesn’t just mean a potential delay in counting votes but also “mirages” showing skewed results for either side of the aisle. Democrats, who voted by mail more than Republicans, may appear to build a significant lead, only to see the gap closed on election night and in the days after—or vice versa.
News organizations and the major broadcast networks will need to communicate these fluctuating changes to Americans. The one theme that broadcasters have repeatedly stressed for this election: transparency.
“We’ve been very careful not to necessarily telegraph how long this is going to take,” says Rashida Jones, senior vice president of NBC News and MSNBC. “We know the possibility that things could extend beyond the night, but it’s not out of the question. That’s something that we’re gonna be very open and transparent with our viewers. If we do get a call on election night, that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the system. If we don’t get a call on election night, same thing—there’s nothing wrong.”
Jones says that NBC will be utilizing more data and visual elements during its broadcast this year, including augmented reality elements, to accurately convey information to viewers. One example she points to is the tally of votes in, measured by the amount of precincts reported. Compared with previous elections, a total of, say, 80% of precincts, could be enough to call a state. But that won’t be as accurate this year owing to the amount of mail-in votes that may not have been counted in time.
“And so one thing that we’re doing differently this cycle is really putting on high display the amount of votes that we’re expecting from any individual state,” says Jones. “That’s based on assessment and analysis from state and local election officials. How much is expected, and how much has been counted to date? So we have an assessment of, if 8 million votes are expected, but only 2 million have been counted, and they haven’t been counted in Democratic- or Republican-leaning counties, we feel we can give a better assessment to the audience of what to expect from the remaining 6 million votes.”
Rick Klein, political director at ABC News, says the network is going to emphasize the percentage of expected votes that are in and break the results down “more than we’ve ever had in the past.” That means detailed, visual looks at early voting, absentee ballots, places where votes have yet to come in, snapshots of battleground states, and more. And echoing Jones, he says ABC will make clear to viewers that Election Day is merely the last day to vote, not necessarily the date to expect complete results.
“It’s sort of a marvel of modern television and journalism that the country’s become used to knowing immediately,” he says. “There’s never been an election in history where all the votes are counted immediately. It doesn’t happen that way. But the process has changed substantially, and because it’s changed, we’re going to have to just be more careful on this. People have short memories of these things. I mean, the 2000 election famously didn’t get settled on election night,” he adds, referencing the face-off between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Similar to the impact of in-person voting, the coronavirus pandemic has also changed the way journalists do on-the-ground reporting in the buildup to the election. Along with polls, interviewing locals provides opportunities for news organizations to understand the electorate. “It’s not just about election night itself. I think one thing that the media admitted they need to do a better job of after 2016 was getting out of the coast and actually listening to voters,” says Caitlin Conant, political director of CBS News.
“I was worried if we’re not actually out in the field, that might make us miss the story again,” she adds. “From a coverage standpoint, that is the most difficult thing. Thankfully [our reporters] are out, they’re safe, and they’ve been in battleground states. So pretty early on I assigned them to cover battleground states and to start sourcing up basically from their mom and dad’s homes.”
Conant says that the situation actually ended up being beneficial because “they really became experts on these states and knowing all the ins and outs of the legal rules of these states,” which will come in handy on election night. “We need to constantly remind people when we are talking about states what their rules are, why we may know, and why we may not know tonight,” she says.
Ultimately, Conant says: “We want to be right. And we want to be right rather than being first.”