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Who calls an election? Why we need patience and nonpartisanship this time

Who calls an election? Why we need patience and nonpartisanship this time
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Americans treat elections like a football or basketball game. The clock runs down, the buzzer sounds, one team wins. As soon as the polls close, the television networks start to call states for one or the other candidate. By the time we go to bed that evening, we expect to know who won the presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress. We need to take steps, starting now, to ensure elections are called in a fair and accurate way.

There is reason to worry. In a close or disputed election, how the networks and major news organizations choose to call an election can profoundly shape the outcome. Remember the suspense of November 2000? The Voter News Service, a consortium of broadcast companies, called Florida prematurely for George W. Bush. Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreFox News president warns of calling winner too soon on election night: 2000 still 'lingers over everyone' Older voters helped put Trump in office; they will help take him out Debate is Harris's turn at bat, but will she score? MORE conceded. Once it became clear how close the vote actually was, Gore retracted that concession. Nonetheless, the former vice president bore the burden of “proving” that the election had been called in error. The Bush team was skillful in the propaganda battle that took place in the following weeks. It was in the subsequent media war that Gore truly lost the election. Increasingly portrayed as an obstructionist, he eventually conceded again, rather than fight on.  

Something like this could happen in 2020. If the election is close and the results are disputed, the media outlets will again jostle to make the call. A lot of attention is being paid to protecting the right to vote and mail-in ballots. That is certainly appropriate, and the first step in ensuring a legitimate election. But attention also should be paid to who announces the results. Fox News, as in 2000? Other networks seeking to beat each other to the punch? President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE or Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE? We need a public and transparent process for declaring winners and losers in a timely fashion. We need to do better than the completely unregulated media frenzy we have now. 

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The problem is rooted in the public’s demands for quick results and the slow process of counting votes. It takes days or weeks to undertake a formal count, and even longer to certify the results. By the time the final count is announced, the “losers” have been expected to concede and the “winners” will be measuring the curtains for their new offices.

Imagine the following scenario for this fall: The mail-in vote leans heavily Democratic and the in-person vote leans heavily Republican (very likely, based on polls showing Trump being anti-mailed ballots and Democrats being more coronavirus-sensitive). Imagine Trump leads after Election Day in many states, but only half the votes are counted. Fox, Trump supporters, and even Trump himself declare victory. The remaining media outlets equivocate, but the storyline is set by those willing to declare a winner. As the count takes weeks to complete, this process turns into a propaganda war. The election now gets fought in many domains, only one of which is the ballot box.

The public demand for quick results gives enormous power to the pollsters and media who in actuality declare the outcome of nearly all elections. Based on pre-election surveys, pollsters working for major media outlets examine the exit polls and first returns and project winners. Every year the survey technology improves, but the possibility of error remains. With the COVID-19 pandemic, past trends that helped pollsters project winners will be less reliable than ever. This will be especially true with an unprecedentedly large number of mail-in ballots.

In this era of increasingly partisan media, why should we trust Fox News or MSNBC, The New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal to name winners and losers in 2020? The media used to portray themselves as umpires in the electoral game, unbiased observers who could be trusted to call outcomes to the best of their abilities. In reality, a network’s or newspaper’s incentives are not to protect democracy but to scoop its competitors and attract eyeballs. Our trust in the media was likely naïve in the past, but is clearly misplaced in today’s partisan age. 

All votes count, and we should count all votes — including mail ballots that may take weeks to tally. But we should also focus on the calling of elections by the media. We need bipartisan and authoritative panels to work with the networks as returns start to come in. All media should develop, in advance of Election Day, panels of experts not on their payrolls and political leaders from both major parties — perhaps former presidents — to oversee their projections and approve their announcements. Past efforts in this direction have failed and allowed networks to opt-out, which the most partisan of them have done. This is precisely the problem we envision. 

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All major media outlets should commit to forming bipartisan panels — or perhaps a joint panel — and to not declaring any candidate a winner until their panel independently approves the projection. Membership on these panels must be public and transparent, and each media outlet can and should be free to criticize the composition of the panels of their rivals. Tying of the hands of the media in this way could provide the credibility that the current system lacks. The public should ignore projections from any media outlet not certified by a bipartisan panel.  

We the people, in turn, must accept that it may be days or weeks before we know who our next president, senator, or representative will be. National elections are the “big leagues,” but they are not a game. The time is now for a serious national conversation about these issues.  

Peter Gourevitch is the founding dean of the School of Global Policy and Strategy, serving from 1986 to 1998, and distinguished professor emeritus of political science at the University of California San Diego.

David A. Lake is Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Jerri-Ann and Gary E. Jacobs Endowed Chair in Social Sciences at the University of California San Diego.