The US Presidential Election is bound to look different this year.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, both Democratic and GOP party conventions have been dramatically scaled back, and it’s unlikely that there will be rooms packed with people celebrating election night results on November 3. Many states have moved to expand vote-by-mail and absentee voting, which could mean new voting experiences for many Americans and a longer timeline for vote counting.
As newsrooms think about how to cover the run-up to the election that is now just 93 days away, experts say educating voters on how voting systems will work should be top of mind.
“The press needs to educate the public both about how to vote … and to knock down these conspiracy theories about voter fraud and things that are going to convince people that the election is not being done fairly,” Richard Hasen, the Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at University of California, Irvine told CNN’s Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources” Sunday.
“People in the media should be letting the public know that a slow count is a fair count, and that trying to rush things is just going to create sloppiness.”
Heightened stakes for election coverage
This work may be even more important in light of President Donald Trump’s recent statements that some fear could undermine Americans’ confidence in the voting process and election results, experts say. On Thursday, Trump tweeted: “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
Delaying an election in the United States would be unprecedented, and it’s a move Trump has no authority to make. His claims that the contest will be flawed are also without evidence. However, some are concerned his statements could stoke fear among Americans about the security of the election.
“The biggest threat is that we’re not going to have a fair election or we’re not going to have an election that voters, or a good chunk of voters, would accept as legitimate,” Hasen, who is also the author of “Election Meltdown,” said.
Hasen said he worries about a “nightmare” scenario in which more Trump voters cast their ballots in person, so Trump appears to be ahead on election night, but Democratic candidate Joe Biden ends up winning the election with more mail-in ballots that take longer to count.
“Is Trump going to say, as he said in 2018, only accept the votes that arrive on election day? And trying to claim that he’s actually the winner of the election when he’s actually the loser,” Hasen said. “The kinds of statements he is making are really undermining the public’s confidence in the fairness of the vote count for no good reason.”
Covering the run-up to the election
Baseless claims about voter fraud have caused confusion among voters, said Erin Geiger Smith, author of “Thank You for Voting: The maddening, enlightening, inspiring truth about voting in America.”
“What’s so important for the media to do as we move forward is not just to address those issues and push back on false claims, but we have to do our jobs and let the voters know about the part they can actually control, which is voting,” Geiger Smith said, adding that newsrooms should focus on educating Americans on basic information such as how vote-by-mail works and what they can do to ensure their vote counts.
“I really think any story that we write talking about the problems has to also answer the question: Am I giving the voter the information that they need to make sure that their vote can count?” Geiger Smith said. “Because there’s very little that voters can do about funding the election, or getting the USPS more money — they can push their senators to do that, they can volunteer to be poll workers — but at the end of the day, they need to know how to vote by mail in their state and whether vote by mail is the right choice for them.”
Many such efforts are already underway.
Journalists with the Associated Press have been researching each state’s voting procedures as they prepare for the election, AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said Sunday. The Associated Press has a 50-state network of reporters and the news organization has been tallying and reporting election results since 1848.
“The US election system is very decentralized,” Buzbee said. “So what we’re doing is doing an enormous amount of research to make sure that we understand how each state is going to handle its elections, what its laws and procedures are going to be, how they’re going to handle mail-in voting … so that we can communicate that to our customers and the news organizations that depend on us for that vote count on election night. And so that everyone can have as clear and factual and transparent an idea of how this election will work as possible.”