The Media Needs to Prepare Now for a Very Different Kind of Election Night

With a surge in mailed-in ballots, all of the votes won’t be counted for days—perhaps even weeks.

Donald Trump is causing massive headaches for Republican officials with his lies about fraudulent mail-in ballots.

President Trump’s unfounded attacks on mail balloting are discouraging his own supporters from embracing the practice, according to polls and Republican leaders across the country, prompting growing alarm that one of the central strategies of his campaign is threatening GOP prospects in November.

No matter how hard they try to thread the needle and suggest that there is a difference between absentee ballots (which they claim are fine) and mail-in ballots, the president’s followers have been trained to swallow anything he utters and are buying his lies.

A Monmouth University poll of registered voters in Georgia taken late last month found that 60 percent of Democrats are at least somewhat likely to vote by mail this fall, compared with 28 percent of Republicans…

“Please don’t confuse North Carolina’s absentee system with other states’ all-mail elections,” read the message from Darryl Mitchell, chairman of the Johnson County GOP. “NCGOP and JoCo GOP agrees with the President that our current absentee ballot request system is safe and secure.”

The assurance was met with skepticism from many commenters. “Burned it! I will go in person to vote straight Republican,” wrote one.

“Why is the GOP sending this out,” wrote another, adding: “You know damn well that we are arguing against this, and here it is our own damn party sending this horse dung out?!!! Whoever is in charge of this should be fired. I am going to the polls. Don’t send me one.”

As a result, what is likely to happen on election day is that tallies of those who vote in person will be reported first and, as we have seen during the primaries, final results will be delayed for days or even weeks as mail-in ballots are counted. That means that it is very possible that Trump will be in the lead initially, which is why he recently tweeted this:

In other words, Trump will claim victory on election night and then challenge the results once all of the ballots are counted.

It is important for Democrats to get the message out about what is likely to happen. But ultimately it will be up to news media to make a dramatic change in how they report the results on the night of November 3rd. For example,  exit polls will be useless since they only report on those who show up to vote in person. Media outlets should scrap them altogether this time around.

Rather than all of the breathless election reporting, news outlets should spend their time informing the public about why things will be different this time and then provide daily updates on the results. Any Trump victory laps should come with a caution that he’s jumping the gun.

One can only hope that in news rooms all over the country discussions will take place over the next few months about how they need to change their election coverage dramatically in order to keep the public informed. Given their obsession with always being first to report on major developments, I’m not terribly hopeful that they will do so. That failure would play right into Trump’s hands and offer him a platform to sow chaos with the integrity of our elections. In other words, it would make them complicit in undermining our democracy.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.