What to Watch if Election Night is a Cliffhanger
By Sandy K. Johnson
One of my bosses famously used to say that presidential elections always break.
Unless they don’t, as we learned in 2000. Then 2004. And 2016 is closing, not breaking.
It’s not my role to tell political reporters how to do their jobs; I’m not in the daily news business anymore (SAD!). However, I can provide some tips and lessons learned from the deep knowledge of vote counts and too-close-to-call races burned into my brain after 25 years of directing political coverage at The Associated Press.
At the Polling Place. Will Tuesday’s elections be “rigged?” Of course not, as others have eloquently explained here and here. But the vote count of 130 million Americans is not infallible. It is highly decentralized, yes, but that also means the vote count burbles up from the very bottom – from polling place to precinct to county to state. California alone has 24,000 precincts, for example. There is the potential to enter inaccurate data all along the way – which infamously happened in Volusia County in Florida in 2000. And voting machines vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Reporters should know which machines are used in your state and by jurisdiction. For example, look at the crazy quilt just in Florida. By machine type: Electronic touch screens do not have paper backup, which is essential if the vote count is called into question. Even Florida’s ridiculous “hanging chads” at least left a paper trail to inspect.
Exit Polls. Be wary of what you hear about exit polls on Election Day. The early exit polling data is based on a combination of pre-Election Day public polls, a survey sampling of early voters, and old-fashioned in-person solicitation at randomly sampled precincts. The survey-takers hired by the election poll consortium must stand a certain distance from the polling place (it varies state by state), and they must plead with “exiting” voters to fill out the sample ballot. If voters are being heckled or harassed – or even if the
weather is bad – they will scurry away, and that can potentially affect the exit poll. The early exit poll information is notoriously flawed, and even though the consortium members are supposed to keep it confidential, it always leaks. And the leaked numbers, in the hands of ill-informed reporters and political operatives, is damaging because it rages inaccurately on the internet.
Uncounted Votes. We discovered in the aftermath of 2000 that there is an astonishing number of votes that are not counted on election night. In a more recent example, California counted 2.5 million votes in the month AFTER the 2016 presidential primary, blaming absentee ballots, mechanical problems and provisional ballots. Make sure you understand military and overseas ballots, too – including your state’s history on treating and counting them. Same with absentee and mail-in votes. This year could see a flood of provisional ballots for new voters who registered in 2016 and who may not appear on voter rolls as would consistent voters. Provisional votes are the last to be counted, and a quarter of them are rejected. (Personal note: If the (mostly) elderly poll workers can’t find you on the rolls and suggest a provisional ballot, insist on talking to a supervisor)
Cybersecurity. There are more than a dozen manufacturers of voting equipment across the United States. Many machines are a decade old; would you rely on a 10-year-old computer? What assurances do state election officials have that each voting machine is secure from hackers? There is no such thing as a guarantee – ask Anthem or Target or JPMorgan Chase. The state election systems themselves are also vulnerable (remember the Office of Personnel Management hack affecting 22 million people?). The hacker threat is real; the question is whether hackers are smart enough to know where a surgical strike in a battleground state could make a difference.
Aftermath. Know the recount rules, which vary by state. It’s late, but make sure you have contact information for campaign lawyers, who will be invaluable sources if there are contested votes. In 2000, the campaign turned overnight from a vote count to a marathon legal battle that lasted for five weeks. If your state is contested, each county instantly pivots from counting the vote to certifying the vote – you can easily produce a county canvass by pulling together a team of reporters to call the counties one by one the next day. If you do this, make sure you ask about the status of provisional, overseas, military and outstanding absentee votes.
Presidential Transition. In 2000, when the election results hung in the balance, George W. Bush plowed ahead with his “transition” even before it was official by naming White House and Cabinet picks. It caught Al Gore’s people off-balance, forcing them to play catchup. Here’s how the transition works, explained in a series of NPF presentations from an official vantage point to that of veteran reporters.
Resources for reporters:
- Report of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, especially the Materials and Research tab
- Brennan Center election research
- Election Assistance Commission’s detailed report on the 2012 election
- Center for American Progress analysis of provisional ballots in 2012
- State-by-state resources from the National Association of Secretaries of State
Editor’s Note: Sandy Johnson is president & COO of the National Press Foundation. She directed political coverage at the AP for 25 years, including oversight of polling and calling races. Johnson was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for refusing to call the 2000 race for Bush against a tide of pressure after the television networks did so.