The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The media is blowing its chance to head off an Election Day debacle

Long lines formed at polling places across Los Angeles County on Super Tuesday, including this location in Santa Monica. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
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If Election Day 2020 turns into a full-blown disaster, no one can say there weren’t plenty of warning signs.

There were the Iowa caucuses, when glitches with an untested new app delayed the state’s election results for havoc-filled days that turned into weeks. Or the Texas Democratic primary, where some Super Tuesday voters waited in line to vote for more than six hours while others simply gave up. Or the California primary that same day, when faulty new touch-screen voting equipment triggered hours-long waits in Los Angeles County.

If comparable disaster in November robs well-intentioned voters of their chance to be heard — or worse, gives bad-faith partisans an excuse to undermine the credibility of the vote — then the news media will bear a share of the blame.

Unless we move quickly.

As it stands, journalists aren’t paying enough attention to this huge story in front of their eyes. Instead, news organizations are obsessed, as always, with horse-race coverage.

Political reporters scrutinize every public-opinion poll as if it were the I Ching. Cable pundits blather about the potential impact of the candidates’ latest gaffes, despite how notoriously bad they are at such prognostications. 

What they are not obsessed with, sadly, is the very core of Election Day: voting itself.

“The media has a huge role to play in helping things to go well,” said Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine and the author of “Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust and the Threat to American Democracy.”

But, Hasen said, that has to happen now, not in September or October when it’s too late.

If journalists turn their searchlights on potential problems, Hasen told me, they can help prevent “situations where losers don’t accept the results as legitimate.”

They can do this by reporting stories that put pressure on local and state officials to take remedial action.

There’s no shortage of potential targets for journalists: malfunctioning equipment, insufficient or poorly run polling places, unfair or discriminatory voter registration, and flawed methods of doing recounts.

As Georgia rolls out new voting machines for 2020, worries about election security persist

Many experts are convinced that the gold-standard method for casting votes is the old-fashioned hand-marked paper ballot, which Hasen calls “the least hackable and the most audit-able.” But, as Sue Halpern wrote in the New Yorker last year, vendors of fancy new voting systems have been aggressive in their efforts to sell municipalities on their frequently opaque products.

Despite all this rich story material, not many news organizations have dedicated themselves to sustained scrutiny. 

Yes, there is plenty of attention paid when something goes wrong, as in Iowa or on Super Tuesday. But overall, the coverage tends to be haphazard, after-the-fact, and not oriented enough to deeper issues such as the pressures and inducements for governments to invest in untried new voting machines. 

I don’t buy the argument that there are insufficient newsroom resources. After all, virtually every newsroom has at least some political reporters. And they often run in packs, producing scoop-oriented coverage that’s not much different from their peers at other networks or newspapers.

But there are precious few voting-beat specialists.  Prominent among that rarefied group are Pam Fessler at NPR and Ari Berman at Mother Jones. Some major news companies, including The Washington Post, are also beefing up their coverage.

Berman often focuses on what has happened since 2013, when the Supreme Court struck at the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He reported that the long lines on Super Tuesday trace directly back to the high court’s ruling that states no longer need federal approval to close polling places. That empowered Texas alone to close more than 600 polling places in recent years.

“It disproportionately hurt Democratic and minority voters, because 70 percent of the polling places were closed in the 50 counties in the state with the largest growth of black and Latino voters,” Berman said in a recent Democracy Now interview.

Study: Heavily minority precincts endured longer wait times to cast ballots in 2018

The New York Times’s Nikole Hannah-Jones suggested that this trend amounts to a “poll tax” because such voters may have to give up a day’s pay to cast their ballots. And, of course, high turnout — which ought to be a primary goal in a democracy — only makes the lines longer.

Hasen is also concerned about an even larger problem: mechanical error, mixed with human misjudgment.

“You’re more likely to be disenfranchised by incompetence,” he argued, “than voter suppression.” The Iowa caucuses are a case in point; with those results still murky, it amounted to “a failed election.”

No one should want that in November. A scenario in which President Trump is defeated at the polls but refuses to give up the Oval Office because he charges the election was rigged? It doesn’t exactly strain credulity.

All the more reason for the press to redirect at least some of its attention from the drama of the latest poll numbers to something far more important. And to do it now when it matters most.

Rock the vote? By all means.

But cover the vote first.

READ MORE from Margaret Sullivan:

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