The Covid-19 pandemic has changed how we live our daily lives in so many ways over the last two months. As we’ve seen across the country these changes, great and small, have reached the world of politics and elections.
Recently an ad-hoc committee of scholars and researchers led by professor Rick Hasen of the University of California at Irvine, released a report addressing the challenges posed by holding an election in the midst of a public health crisis and offered recommendations regarding the execution of the upcoming general election. Many of these recommendations are aimed at government officials overseeing elections, but some are addressed to the media regarding their coverage of the process.
As a leading provider of election night results to national and local media outlets, Decision Desk HQ has been monitoring the rapidly changing conditions under which election have been, and are likely to be, held. I wanted to take this opportunity to address two of the committee’s recommendations as they apply to the work we do at DDHQ.
Recommendation #5 involves educating the public on the timing and process of elections as well as the tabulation of returns. This is something we take seriously and will be doing our best to provide information and context from our perspective throughout the rest of the year. As an organization that services as a bridge between the government officials charged with conducting our elections and the media responsible for informing the public about the conduct and results of elections, we feel we bring a unique and important perspective to this conversation.
We’ll be doing more educational pieces over the course of the next few months starting here.
Recommendation #6 is an excellent place to begin our contribution to the discussion: :
It is especially important for the media to convey to the public the idea that, given an expected increase in absentee ballot voting in the November 2020 elections, delays in election reporting are to be expected, not evidence of fraud, and that the 2020 presidential election may be “too early to call” until days after election day.
We wholeheartedly agree about the need for expectation-setting and election education in order to dispel rumors and instill confidence in the process.
Let us start with a look at the different types of voting available and the processes by which the results are made public.
Early voting has been part of the election landscape for several decades, be it by mail or at designated in-person locations days and even weeks ahead of the election date. With COVID-19, swing states that previously conducted minimal mail-in voting, like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire are seeing, or will soon see, their voters jump at the opportunity to avoid voting in-person on election day. Swing states with longer traditions of early voting, like Florida, Ohio, Iowa, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Texas, will see an increase in their volume. Some states simply will not be prepared to tabulate this surge on election day. Many already break up their tabulation over multiple days, and some take upwards of a month to ensure every single valid ballot is counted.
The cadence of how and when these varying types of votes are processed, tabulated, and reported can cause misunderstandings about the totals being reported. Let’s walk through a common scenario to see how this can play out.
The “early” vote is usually tabulated first and includes in-person early votes and any mail-ins received and processed by a date determined by state/county officials. Depending on the state, these are tabulated and announced all-at-once per county or are broken up into distinct subgroups and tabulated/announced at set intervals throughout election night. The traditional in-person election day vote is tabulated by county and municipal officials, rolling in through the night as precincts or groups of precincts are processed. Provisionals and the balance of mail-in votes (the mail-ins received before the deadline but after the initial mail-in tabulation period) are counted either late night or in the days and weeks following the election.
While the earlier processed and reported votes from one type of voting may appear to favor one candidate over another in the first tranche of released votes, once other types of votes are processed and accounted for the other candidate takes the lead. Just looking at the vote count roll in, it would appear (wrongly) a “surge” for a candidate came in late, when they were going to be cast that way regardless of timing. Had the election day vote been counted first, with mail-ins and early counted later, it would appear (again, wrongly) a “surge” for the other candidate would have appeared, when they were going to be cast that way anyway.
As you can see, the order of operations can make things appear to be shifting greatly when in fact the “shift” is simply an artifact of workflow and voter preference for how to exercise their franchise. It’s easy to imagine how Covid-19 changes in voting methods could lead to unusual patterns in reporting that may appear to be more than they really are.
In 2016, eagle-eyed election observers saw the “early” vote favor Hillary Clinton in North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio, with her lead slipping and the eventual victor Donald Trump climbing ahead as the election day vote was tabulated. All these votes counted and had been returned by the deadline. But it can cause confusion or suspicion, particularly among the losing candidate’s supporters. The pattern of timing preference is not universally partisan, but in places where it tends to be, it can appear that the election is “shifting” when it’s simply a matter of all of the ballots not yet being counted.
Depending on the political preferences of those who cast by mail and early, with a likely reduced presence of in-person voting, we will probably be waiting for days in closer states for a winner to be determined.
This impacts how we call contests. With such uncertainty in total vote count, participation, and voting method state by state, no outlet is going to be rushing to “call” a close contest with potentially hundreds of thousands of votes left to be tabulated.
It also needs to be said that data tabulation companies like ours, the AP, and Edison Media Research do not actually count the votes, that role belongs to the election officials. Our job is to transcribe and report the returns as tabulated by these officials, to our media clients.
News organizations are now talking about how to adjust for the reality of “election week” instead of “election night”. While it may annoy some TV executives, it’s the new reality, and those that adapt fastest will keep their viewers engaged and the public informed.
I also want to quickly update everyone on our plans for the remaining primaries and November’s general election.
When we began DDHQ, we set about to create a new way to collect and tabulate election results from officials. Much has change in terms of how votes are cast, collected, and reported by election officials around the country. Technology on the media side has changed as well. The system we have built, and continue to innovate, does not rely on having an individual reporter in nearly every county office around the country. It is our proven ability to collect and report results faster, more accurately, and remotely that gives us the confidence to say we will be able to provide results on election night however and whenever election officials make them available.
While all results can be collected remotely, there are still a relative handful of places where the traditional in-person collection method works best, and we’ve employed it to ensure service to our clients and the public. However, once it became clear that sending reporters to election offices was not in the best interest of our staffers or election workers, we announced on March 13th that we would suspend the use of these in-person collectors. Since then we have reported on hundreds of races in dozens of states across the country without using a single in-person reporter. The end product has been as strong as ever with no visible difference to our clients or their audiences. We have stuck to that through the duration of the pandemic and plan to continue to do so until it is safe to do otherwise.
Since our suspension of in-person collection, election workers in Illinois, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Florida have been diagnosed, hospitalized and even died from COVID-19. Poll workers in this country skew older, putting them more at-risk. While in-person collection of results does not usually involve interaction with these workers, those at the election offices are often from the same population pool.
Covid-19 has challenged people around the country in far more important and tragic ways than it has us at DDHQ. We, along with our colleagues in the election world, will find ways to adapt to our new circumstances but we must do our part to ensure the American public understands things will be different this election and that’s ok. The fundamentals will still be the same. Votes will still be cast, collected, and reported. The map will still fill in. The races will still be called. We just need to understand that route we take to get to the traditional destination will be a little different this year.
We will all need a little patience and understanding. There’s no race to be wrong, especially in a time where our country is as politically divided as it is.