Most US presidential elections have had a clear winner either on election night or the following morning (the 2000 debacle notwithstanding). Networks analyze the data and call the race, the losing candidate concedes, and a winner declares victory.
That may not happen this year—and broadcast and cable news networks say they’re ready to help viewers navigate what could be a very confusing election process.
Because of the unprecedented proportion of mail-in ballots and pre-election day voting, which are counted at different times and at very different speeds depending on the state, it could appear as though a candidate is “winning” a state on election night only for that lead to evaporate as more votes are counted in the hours, days, or weeks following Nov. 3.
What that means for the TV networks is that, unlike in past elections, they claim they will go out of their way to be candid about what they know and don’t know in each moment.
Differentiating between vote type
“The noticeable on-air difference is that you will be seeing and hearing a lot about how the ballots were cast,” NBC News election guru Steve Kornacki told Newsday. “Those swings could be dramatic [and] we want to make people aware of that.”
The role of calling US elections has long been assumed by the television networks, alongside the Associated Press. Elections aren’t really “official” until one candidate concedes to the other, which usually happens on the night of the election or the next day. Elections aren’t official in a legal sense until each state certifies its counts and then the electoral college votes to determine a winner in December. But the public doesn’t wait until then.
Because of Donald Trump’s constant misinformation about the voting process, and his campaign’s mounting attempts to legally challenge legitimate voting methods in certain states, there is more pressure than ever on the networks to get things right. They’re promising to educate viewers that this year’s election will likely not be near finished on election night itself.
“CNN is deploying resources to keep viewers apprised of updates on vote counts and reports, which may extend beyond November 3,” the news network wrote in a press release. Dan Merkle, the executive director of elections at ABC News, told FiveThirtyEight that he doesn’t expect ABC to call the race on Nov. 3—and it won’t make any calls until one candidate has won enough states to claim the 270 electoral votes needed to become president.
How elections are called—and what’s different this year
All the major networks work with “decision desks”—panels of election experts and statisticians who operate independently of the newsrooms—to make the ultimate calls. Those desks can’t help it if pundits start wildly speculating, but the networks say they will only call races when the data nerds—not the talking heads—tell them to.
In coordination with the AP and the University of Chicago, Fox News will be using a new analysis system based on voter surveys, in lieu of the traditional exit polling, which is often inaccurate. Most other networks will continue using standard exit polls as part of their election night coverage.
NBC News doubled the size of its “vote watch” team, which will report on issues like voting rights and misinformation. ABC and CBS have similar units that will focus on voting integrity, keeping viewers updated on how votes are being counted. Every network is prepared to devote all of Nov. 4—or as long as it is necessary—to ongoing election coverage. Each are hoping to reframe Nov. 3 as the possible start of an election week or month, rather than the definitive end to the contest.
They will also reassure voters that slow results do not necessarily mean there is something to worry about. Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, told Variety that the network will repeatedly remind viewers why some states are being called while others aren’t. Virtually every news executive interviewed by Reuters earlier this month stressed their goal was to be as transparent as possible about the process of calling states.
A lot of the coverage will still be familiar
Still, despite the change in tone from previous elections, networks aren’t completely overhauling coverage. They will still convene giant panels of political analysts to discuss the results. They will send reporters to every swing state, and to each campaign. They will have data gurus in front of interactive boards, breaking down votes by county, and comparing those to historical trends.
In general, the 2020 election night coverage will look similar to prior elections. But it very well may feel different to viewers, who will likely notice a slower, more solemn, more guarded approach to making major pronouncements. NBC News says it won’t project winners in any races until it is 99.5% confident in the result.
“Our byword of the night is transparency,” Marc Burstein, the producer in charge of election coverage at ABC, told the AP. “We will tell people what we know, we will tell people what we don’t know, and we will tell them why.”