Journalists, Be Ready For A Different Kind Of Election Day

The digital sticker that Ann Arbor voters received

In the last days of the endless presidential campaign, I’ve been cheered to see the number of Americans who voted early.

We’re now up to more than half of the number of people who voted in the 2016 general election.

And yet, the scripts you are hearing and the stories you are reading seem oblivious to the fact that this will be a very different kind of election day.

We still hear about polls of “likely voters” that leave out the fact that the number of likely voters may not be very large.

We still hear about Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s campaigns “building up to Election Day” even though for half of voters, Election Day already took place.

We hear about expectations of long lines and complications at the polls.

Except, those long lines and complications may very well not happen.

We could wind with a relatively breezy Election Day in many places, because there are so few undecided voters and so many sent in or delivered their ballots.

To be sure, it could take time for all those ballots to be counted. And despite what Trump has said about counting all the votes on Nov. 3, it’s impossible to do so.

For one thing, time zones get in the way. You can’t declare the process over at midnight on Nov. 3 on the East Coast; that would rob counters in the Central, Mountain, Pacific Time Zones and beyond from a full day of counting.

There are a number of things that journalists and pundits have to bear in mind as they prepare for Election Day. There’s still time to incorporate them into your coverage plan.

  1. What was the early turnout? A television journalist might arrive at a polling place to find only a handful of people in line. That won’t make for great footage, but that journalist can’t go on the air and say, “turnout was light.” It’s absolutely imperative to know the number of early voters for that precinct, city or state. Have the numbers in a spreadsheet, and make them easy for staffers to access.
  2. What was the turnout in the past two elections? Viewers and readers are entitled to know how this year compares with the last general election, and even the one before that. One of the key reasons why Trump won Michigan, my home state, was that turnout in Detroit and Flint were lighter than in 2012, when Barack Obama ran for his second term. Anyone reporting on Michigan results this time needs to compare the fresh figures with two sets of data.
  3. What are the demographic changes in your area, city and state? This is vitally important in places like Texas and Arizona, both of which have welcomed many newcomers in the past decade. Pundits say that Texas could turn blue because the new residents in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio are Democrats who moved there from elsewhere, and less because of a mindset shift on the part of long-time residents.
  4. Did the candidates visit? How frequently and how recently? In Michigan, we became so used to visits by presidential and vice presidential candidates, you could easily meet one if you wanted. Then, in 2016, Hillary Clinton visited far less than seemed usual, possibly because she thought she would win the state. I was surprised when she skipped a rally on Election Eve that featured Obama and University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh. The photo opp alone would have landed on front pages and sports pages, too. This year, Biden and Kamala Harris are not making that mistake. They’ve been here regularly.
  5. Have voter registrations risen significantly? Political experts often discount young voters, saying they might show up at rallies, but they don’t cast ballots when the time comes. But this year could be different. There has been a concerted young voter registration effort the past few years. Those figures could be a factor both in college towns and the voters’ home towns, since a number of universities canceled in-person classes due to COVID, and are holding remote sessions instead. Don’t assume that because your city isn’t a college town that college-age voters aren’t a factor. Check the numbers.

We know that political reporting can get stuck in old cliches (the terms “Rust Belt” and “flyover country” are like nails on a chalkboard to those of us who actually live in these states). But 2020 provides an opportunity for fresh, exciting Election Night coverage.

Don’t fall back on familiar patterns. Prepare, and be prepared. It’s going to be a fascinating night. Week. End of the year.

Micheline Maynard is a journalist who tweets @mickimaynard

Journalist. Author. The Check blog on NPR and NYT alum

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