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How to cover Election Day and beyond

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By Vivian Schiller and Garrett M. Graff

OCTOBER 19, 2020

AMERICANS THINK ABOUT ELECTIONS WRONG; they aren’t only about tallying votes to declare a winner. Elections in a democracy are just as much about convincing the loser that he or she actually lost—and that the process was free, fair, and secure enough that the loser can accept the result as legitimate.

Now, only weeks before Election Day, there’s a growing realization that the complexity of this year’s electoral landscape—from pandemic-related social distancing and poll-staffing disruptions to mail-in voting and a combustible year of public protests—likely means that some of the presidential campaign’s biggest drama might very well play out in the hours and days after Election Day. 

According to a new survey by Pew, voters across both parties say it is important to know who won the election within a day or two of November 3. Far fewer are confident that this will happen.

The possibility of a long gap before the winner becomes clear—and the very real fear that the apparent loser of the November 3 vote and his supporters will declare that the results aren’t legitimate—has forced news organizations to think deeply in advance about how they should responsibly report and frame the unofficial tallies they’ll gather on election night. 

After a lengthy series of election-related conversations hosted by the Aspen Institute this summer and fall—including discussions with election administrators, disinformation researchers, legal scholars, and representatives from news organizations and tech companies—there are ten clear principles media organizations should keep in mind as they plan their election night coverage: 

    1. Problems are not failures. There will be actors trying to convince the public that every small error is evidence of a rigged system. In fact, individual examples of mishaps, misconduct, or even malfeasance are not evidence that the electoral system is incapable of providing a legitimate result. Normal stuff goes wrong on Election Day; there are machines that don’t work, polling places that lose power or open late, voter rolls that get misdelivered. That’s not unusual. There are upwards of 230,000 polling places in the US, so even in an election during which 99.9 percent of precincts operate perfectly, there will be hundreds of problems. Social distancing efforts may make even relatively short, fast-moving lines appear unmanageable, stretching hundreds of feet down the block; in such a situation, news organizations should avoid images or descriptions that might mislead voters to believe there are problems where there aren’t. Avoid suggestions that “routine” mishaps may be nefarious or criminal; likewise, do not suggest that “regular” problems may lead to election results that will be fraudulent or invalid.



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