No “late surges” or “comebacks”: Elections are not football games

I touched on this yesterday, but since it doesn’t look like we’ll be moving away from mail-in voting any time soon, I think we need to reconsider how presidential elections are covered. A big reason why Trump and his supporters can claim that the election is being “stolen” is because the initial numbers on Election Day favored them, while mail-in votes have been significantly skewed toward Biden, so the final results keep inching toward a Biden victory.

That’s partially the president’s fault: he spent so much time deriding mail-in voting (despite doing it himself) that much of his base wouldn’t consider taking advantage of it for this election. In at least one case, Trump supporters held a protest in Michigan where they burned the absentee ballot applications they’d automatically received in the mail:

So we expected a “red mirage” on Election Night, and had a pretty good idea that the initial numbers would shift blue as the mail-in votes were counted. This was made worse by the legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, who refused to allow early counting of those ballots, likely to support the Trump campaign’s narrative that votes counted after Election Day would be invalid and fraudulent.

(The Trump campaign is currently trying to have it both ways: In the states they’re slightly behind, they want all of the votes counted. In the ones they’re ahead in, they want to “stop the count.” Basically, the message is that the only valid vote is one for Trump.)

If elections have changed, why should we keep covering them the same way? The networks have an agreement between themselves not to call the results of individual states’ voting until the polls close in each state (but not necessarily the overall winner if it’s obvious they’ve collected the necessary electoral votes). I realize an informal agreement to not report preliminary election numbers until a winner can be confirmed would be extremely hard to enforce and might even be a violation of the First Amendment. But are clerks’ offices and secretary of state offices required by law to provide those preliminary results? If not, might they be able to take a day or two or even 72 hours to do all (or at least most, say 95%) of the counting before releasing results?

It would reduce the impression that elections are football games, with the score going back and forth until a last-minute comeback wins or falls short. After all, if a candidate ends up with more votes after they’ve all been counted, they always had the lead – always – not just after some imaginary surge at the “end.” Ironically, the “last-minute surge” is mostly made up of votes that were cast well in advance of Election Day, making that description of the changing numbers even more inaccurate.

I’m not blaming the media. We need them to tell us what’s going on, because they have access that the average citizen lacks. But it would be careless of them, especially the major television networks that still command a significant percentage of viewers on Election Day, to not consider that the way they cover elections might also be contributing to our current problems.