Early on election night, it was possible to believe Joe Biden was about to walk away with an easy victory. “It’s incredibly close in Florida,” CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said just after 8 p.m.

But within a few minutes, it no longer was. And soon, it was that much easier to envision President Trump’s reelection. Shortly after midnight, ABC News’s Tom Llamas pointed out county-level data on an electronic map, noting that Biden was thus far running behind even Hillary Clinton’s catastrophic 2016 performance in Wisconsin. Llamas hinted at ominous prospects for Democrats until White House correspondent Jonathan Karl cut in: “They have not begun counting the early vote in Wisconsin,” he warned. Sure enough, Biden won Wisconsin.

And so it went, back and forth, red mirages giving way to blue shifts and vice versa — piecemeal reporting that created a whipsaw effect on election night and for several days thereafter, as officials whittled down a historic number of mail-in ballots.

But was the whipsaw necessary? News organizations knew weeks beforehand that the pandemic had created an unprecedented demand for mail-in voting — and that such ballots were favored by Democrats, a dynamic geared to shift the count dramatically depending on when they were counted.

Yet the illusory twists and swerves that were presented on television news created narratives that would linger and confuse. Trump supporters went to bed late that Tuesday believing he had won and woke up stunned to find Biden headed toward victory. Trump quickly seized upon the counting backlog to argue that the results were fraudulent, an evidence-free assertion that he has kept up to this day.

“I’m not sure that experts even realized the extent to which reporting out the results would be systematically affected” by this year’s mail-in boom, said Kathleen Searles, assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University, who called the situation a “nightmare” for the journalists covering it.

Voters in key states across the country headed to the polls to vote in person on Nov. 3, during the coronavirus pandemic and a contentious election. (The Washington Post)

Arguably, part of that nightmare was engineered. While many states dug in early to the chore of processing mail-in votes, Republican-dominated legislatures in the key swing states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania rebuffed proposals to change state laws that mandate that votes can be tabulated no earlier than Election Day. Michigan passed a law allowing local clerks to begin counting for several hours a day earlier, but only in jurisdictions with 25,000 or more people.

This bureaucratic shackle gave the GOP a perceptual advantage on Nov. 3: Because Republicans dominated in-person Election Day voting, the laws essentially guaranteed these returns would trickle out first and draw substantial attention during the prime-time hours of television’s election night coverage — fostering the impression that Trump was on his way to victory.

Did television news fall into a trap by sticking to its decades-old election-night routines in this highly unusual election year?

Representatives of the TV networks say they told viewers that early results could give a distorted picture of the race, both in the weeks before Election Day and during their coverage that night.

On Fox News, Chris Wallace noted on-air early on the evening of Nov. 3 that swings in the counting were likely, resulting in shifting leads. “That’s not anybody stealing the election,” he told viewers. “That’s simply the order in which votes are being counted.”

NBC News created on-screen graphics that showed not just votes already counted but also the total number of votes expected in each state, further broken down by the uncounted “early and absentee” portion — an indication of the potential direction of each race. MSNBC analyst Steve Kornacki played out the complicated counting dynamics in Pennsylvania — early votes, mail votes, in-person votes, urban vs. rural votes and combinations of all of them — before concluding, “There are going to be some very, very jarring movements here,” depending on which votes were being reported in which county.

As earnest as these explanatory efforts were, much depended on how closely viewers stayed tuned in, scholars who studied the news media’s coverage said.

Although Searles, the Louisiana State scholar, generally praised the networks’ effort to navigate the complicated issues on election night, a better approach would have been to start earlier, said Megan Duncan, an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s communication school.

“Educating the audience [about the various counting procedures] before the election . . . would have the benefit of staving off some of the suspicion on the part of the audience” and decreased the chance for “opportunists” to claim fraud later, Duncan said. Both she and Searles were among a group of scholars who urged the news media to overhaul election-coverage practices.

The uncertain count in a few key swing states, especially Pennsylvania, created a long interregnum that Trump filled with more allegations of vote-stealing. The major networks and other news organizations didn’t call the election for Biden until nearly four days after polls had closed, and only after it became statistically unlikely for Trump to overcome Biden’s slim but still-growing lead in the state.

The reluctance to declare a winner earlier was challenged by some Democrats, notably former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe (D). He told CNN’s Don Lemon early Wednesday morning that the outstanding votes strongly favored Biden in Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania — all states he eventually won. “Joe Biden is going to be the next president of the United States of America,” McAuliffe declared.

In an interview, McAuliffe said his prediction wasn’t hard to make.

“I was up all night [on election night], and I went through all the numbers. It was clear to me that Joe Biden was going to get 306 electoral votes, that he was the president-elect. I had to get it out there and put the marker down. Other people should have said it, too. Get off the ledge! . . . I think they were afraid of [criticism from] the Trump operation.”

McAuliffe said state edicts preventing officials from counting mail-in votes until Election Day were “a deliberate political strategy by Republican legislatures so Trump could declare victory on election night. Their only hope was to create a fiction on election night.” But the networks also profited from the uncertainty, he said. “People made a lot of money talking about this for a few days.”

Despite being short-staffed, overworked and receiving criticism from the president, poll officials were transparent throughout the process. (The Washington Post)

Could there have been a better way to present election results? Absent another pandemic, it’s unlikely future national election returns will follow the same zigzagging path as election night 2020. Then again, growing voter comfort with mail-in voting has spurred talk of expanding it in some states. Certainly, the red and blue mirages could have been erased, or at least reduced, if every state started counting their mail-in ballots soon after they arrived.

But there is little appetite, among either state officials or journalists, for ending the traditional system of reporting incomplete results as they trickle in — no matter how misleading they may be.

The reason: Candidates, the news media and the public all want and deserve to know what’s going on with the count — while it’s happening, they said.

“Even trying to withhold all counting data until an official total is determined would invite genuine unrest,” said Matt Dietrich, a spokesman for Illinois’ state elections board. With 108 local election authorities in Illinois, “I can only imagine the leaking and rumors that would emerge in the weeks after Election Day if unofficial results weren’t provided” as they became available.

In fact, the bit-by-bit reporting on election night added “to the transparency of the process,” said Cindi Allen, Nebraska’s assistant secretary of state, “As results get reported, the many who are interested are able to understand how different segments of voters have responded to the candidates and the issues. Under the watchful eye of those who are interested, results that do not seem to make sense can be questioned and corrected if errors are found.”

The real irregularity in this year’s complicated election returns wasn’t some flaw in the voting or vote counting, argues Eric Covey, the chief of staff to Vermont’s secretary of state, Jim Condos. It was instead, he said, one candidate’s unfounded claim about them.

“The president is only weakening voter confidence in the integrity of our elections by attacking the normal process of counting votes cast by American voters,” he said. “The problem isn’t the process, it is those who seek to denigrate it for political gain.”