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Watchdog requests media detail plans for election night coverage

Watchdog requests media detail plans for election night coverage
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A watchdog group is requesting that media outlets release their plans for election night coverage amid heightened scrutiny over vote counting and the prospect that a winner in the presidential race may not be named until days after Election Day.

The National Task Force on Election Crises, a group of election experts and academics, released a letter Thursday that it sent to the Associated Press, Fox News and the National Election Pool, which includes three broadcast networks and CNN, urging them to explain to the public how they intend to incorporate the expected avalanche of mail-in votes in how they announce winners up and down the ballot.

The letter also warned that outlets will have to be wary that leads on the night of Election Day could be far from final in races where the mail-in ballots have yet to be counted, given that some states do not allow such counts to start until the day the election is actually held.

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The media outlets all have election desks dedicated to projecting election winners. Their predictions are often based on early returns and exit polling and survey data. Those projections are often picked up by an array of other publications.

The task force is specifically asking the outlets to take several preemptive actions, including revealing how their exit polling will account for the increase in mail ballots, how they plan to “contextualize discrepancies” between Election Day results and final vote tallies, what kind of efforts they’re taking to protect their political desks from “internal and external pressure political or otherwise,” and how they will balance their coverage of candidates who declare victory with their analysis of the actual race results.

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“As you know, this presidential election will be like no other in our history,” the task force wrote, citing the expected spike in mail-in voting. “This period of uncertainty will add further pressure to an already strained system and allow bad actors to attempt to undermine our democratic process.”

“Based on our collective experience and expertise, we believe that this level of transparency will help increase public confidence in the process and the outcome, and will, ultimately, help improve your models to withstand challenging circumstances like those we currently face,” it added.

The letter comes amid concerns that several states without a history of a large mail-in voting operation will be challenged in handling the flood of ballots cast by mail and that results in the presidential race could take days or even weeks.

A Politico analysis of election systems found that several states, including the crucial battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, cannot start tallying mailed in ballots until Nov. 3, potentially delaying definitive results in races that are already expected to be tight. 

“We know that there is a furious race to call the winner in every election cycle. But this year needs to be different,” Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the head of policy and strategy at the Emes Project and a former editor at The Washington Post, told Politico, which was the first to report on the task force’s letter. “With such a large number of absentee ballots that will be cast in so many battleground states, the rush to be first could result in getting it wrong."

News outlets said they are confident they will be prepared to cover Election Day proceedings accurately and understand the importance of ensuring a race is over before it is officially called.

“I think our reputation is frankly on the line each and every day when we’re reporting on a wide variety of subjects and certainly the stakes don't get any higher than on election night. So we’re acutely aware of our responsibility to the public and we understand that not only on election night, but in the weeks between now and then we have a very heavy and serious responsibility and that is to make sure that our audience understands how this is all going to work, what the range of possible outcomes look like,” NBC News President Noah Oppenheim said on NPR’s On Point this week.

"AP considers multiple factors — including the advance vote — when declaring election winners, and this year is no exception," AP spokesperson Patrick Maks told The Hill. "AP calls a race when there is a clear indication of a winner. We work as hard as we can to call winners as soon as we can, but we’re guided first by making sure we have the information needed to make an accurate race call."

—Updated at 2:57 p.m.