The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A simple way news networks could halt misinformation on election results

A worker prepares tabulators for the upcoming election at the Wake County Board of Elections in Raleigh, N.C., on Sept. 3. (Gerry Broome/AP)

This post has been updated.

Mike Murphy is co-host of the “Hacks on Tap” podcast with David Axelrod and an analyst for NBC News.

Unlike President Trump, I am confident that absentee and other mailed-in ballots will be properly counted in November. But counting these ballots — perhaps 60 million or more — is going to take a long time. This looms large over several swing states, including New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where local rules prevent election officials from starting to count mailed-in ballots before Election Day. Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s secretary of state, has already predicted that counting all of Michigan’s ballots could take a week.

And a long week it could be. A flood of absentee ballots turning “election night” into “election week” could offer an opportunity for foreign meddlers and online cranks to shake public confidence in our democratic system. Team Trump has already shown little interest in honestly reporting the president’s medical condition; what would stop them from fuzzing up America’s election results, particularly if they think they are losing?

The outlook is not hopeless. Nearly 20 states start counting their absentee ballots before Election Day. Two of those — Florida and Ohio — are critical tells in the electoral college and will probably be able to conclude their counts by early on Nov. 4. Since no Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio and none have won without carrying Florida in 96 years, a Joe Biden win in either would instantly snuff out any mystery about who has prevailed.

If neither state turns blue, however, there is something that news networks can do to preempt some of this confusion and make the job of any malicious doubt merchants harder: release absentee voter polling data on election night, along with the live returns.

Political observers know that on “normal” election days, exit pollsters interview about 60,000 voters at 700 or so carefully selected bellwether polling places. Those interviews, reported in waves on Election Day, are fed into computer models based on past results to make projections about the likely winners in each state and to gather data on which issues voters were thinking about when they made their choices. Networks use those polls, along with early returns, to help project winners.

But there is another element to exit polling that is less well known: Those crafty exit pollsters also poll tens of thousands of absentee voters in advance, by phone and online, during the final weeks before the election.

So here is my pitch to the networks: Release the absentee voter polling data on election night, right along with the live returns. That way the millions of still-uncounted early and absentee votes will be much less of a mystery. Such transparency would be a useful fire extinguisher to try to combat any dumpster blazes our arsonist in chief might try to ignite.

Of course, media outlets would have to be very clear to viewers that these absentee vote polls are a statistical projection with a known margin of error.

In Michigan, for example, it would work like this: After the polls close, the networks would, as usual, start reporting actual Michigan results. But our new cable news star, Dr. Statistics, would then explain to viewers how a large sample poll of absentee and early voters is taken, what a margin of error is, how random samples are drawn from registered voters lists and so on.

The networks could then explain to the audience, based on a telephone poll of 1,500 Michigan voters — with a margin of error of 3 percent in 95 out of 100 cases — that, say, 42 percent of the state’s voters chose to vote early or by mail. Among those voters, they could report, the poll shows presidential candidate X leading by Y percentage points, based on the margin of error. Of course, we would remind viewers again to wait for a final count to know the actual results.

News network bosses may cringe at this idea; traditionally, they treat exit polling data like a state secret. But the absentee ballot part of exit polling is a hidden strength, as it uses long-proven phone-polling techniques, not difficult-to-get-right-in-person interviews at polling places. Exit pollsters already use larger, more statistically reliable samples in their phone polling than most campaign pollsters; the networks could even increase their polling budgets and beef those sample sizes up even more.

Trump plays by new rules, and this year, the media covering election night should, too. Remove the mystery of mail-in ballots, explain the polling science and model the likely range of results. That would undercut troublemakers, so the country could relax and settle in for a slow and careful final count.

Read more:

Read a letter responding to this op-ed: The media must stop treating voting like a sport

The Post’s View: Mail-in ballots are being rejected in North Carolina. It won’t be the only state to face this.

Fareed Zakaria: Prepare for election month, not election night

David Ignatius: How news networks are preparing for the possibility of a delayed vote count

Jennifer Rubin: We need help from Florida and North Carolina to avoid election night turbulence

Tom Daschle and Bill Frist: Counting the votes will take longer this year. That’s okay.

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