President Trump has revealed his endgame in all its corrupt glory. If Trump is on track to losing once all the votes are counted, he will seek to invalidate as many ballots as possible, while asserting that counting outstanding ballots constitutes an effort to steal the election from him.
To be clear: Trump will declare that the election is being stolen from him to justify trying to steal it himself.
But this plot constitutes a bet on massive institutional failure by the news media to render that basic situation with total clarity. So I’d like to suggest how the media might avoid such a disastrous outcome.
One way entails flipping the script so great emphasis in election-night coverage is placed on the percentages of uncounted votes, as opposed to the percentages of counted ones.
First, an aside: Saying Trump has a plot to steal the election doesn’t mean he can’t win. Trump still can win, if there’s a very large polling error, or if he hangs on in Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden’s lead is not overwhelmingly solid, which opens up an inside path.
However, Trump himself has a contingency plan to steal the election if he is set to lose once all the votes are counted. It’s to prevent all the votes from getting counted.
“As soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” Trump declared Sunday, referring to voting in Pennsylvania. Trump also said it’s “terrible” that “states are allowed to tabulate ballots for a long period of time after the election is over.”
Trump has reportedly said privately that if the ongoing count of Election Day votes shows him ahead in enough states, he may prematurely declare victory.
Meanwhile, Trump propagandist Jason Miller told ABC News that Trump will be “ahead on election night,” and that Democrats are “going to try to steal it back after the election.”
“Steal it back” really means “count the votes.”
So while it’s unclear whether Trump will actually declare official victory, we know he’ll pronounce that counting outstanding mail ballots after Election Day constitutes stealing the election from him.
Importantly, this includes ballots that arrived before Election Day. In Pennsylvania, the count of those ballots doesn’t begin until Election Day, so that will stretch on for days after Nov. 3. Trump will declare those illegitimate.
Of course, what Trump declares shouldn’t matter. But in addition to a public strategy to rally supporters, there’s a legal one: In places such as Pennsylvania, lawyers will contest certain classes of mail ballots and ask courts to stop all counting while that’s sorted out. That’s what “going in with our lawyers" means.
That will likely fail. But the problem of Trump declaring millions of uncounted ballots illegitimate — or declaring victory outright — is real: It could sow great uncertainty or lead to street violence.
How the media can get this right
That’s why media figures should emphasize percentages of uncounted ballots. Ordinarily, as votes are counted, you are mainly told the percentages of precincts that have reported, and you extrapolate how many are remaining.
This time, media figures should convey clearly how many votes, and what percentages of votes, remain to be counted. This small adjustment could go a long way: When Trump declares himself ahead (or even the victor), pointing out how many votes are outstanding will expose this as the farce it is.
Separately, Jay Rosen has urged a break with the “what a president says is news” reflex, to avoid amplifying Trump’s insistence that outstanding ballots are illegitimate. And Margaret Sullivan suggests reporters embrace the mission of explaining the uncertainty surrounding the count. Other ideas include emphasizing that the election calendar already requires states to wait weeks before certifying a winner.
Emphasizing with great clarity how many votes remain uncounted would bolster such strategies. Another thing to avoid is describing the Trump campaign’s schemes as mere campaign tactics, normalizing them in real time:
Trump advisers said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Biden a swift victory and giving Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after. https://t.co/IMVciQtWJC— The New York Times (@nytimes) November 1, 2020
And please, no more describing court decisions that protect the right to vote as victories for Democrats:
Says something that in U.S. political discourse we so automatically internalize “votes will be counted instead of thrown out” as a win for Democrats rather than for free and equal people. https://t.co/J7mdE9lZPn— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) November 1, 2020
Importantly, some reporters are pointing out that what’s at stake is whether legally cast ballots are counted. But ideally, if Trump does attempt this scheme, media figures will consider going further, asserting that declaring victory while trying to halt the lawful vote count constitutes trying to steal the election.
This should be widely treated as a monstrous crime in progress, as an attack on the country. After all, that’s what it would be.
Getting the big story right
All this could be moot if Joe Biden wins decisively. If so, there will be a strong temptation to slip back into the oft-suggested idea that Trump never represented the grave threat to liberal democracy that his hysterical critics claimed.
But as Laura Field shows, that intellectual pose undersells the damage Trump has already done to our system. It neglects the GOP’s full-on participation in Trump’s anti-democratic conduct and the extraordinary levels of political mobilization that have been needed to restrain him.
Similarly, if Trump is defeated by a cheat-proof margin, we shouldn’t neglect the civic damage we’ve already seen. Trump has repeatedly told supporters not to accept a loss as legitimate, has urged on voter intimidation and is courting a violent struggle over the results.
And while a massive popular mobilization in response to all this is wonderful to see, much of the coverage is still infected by casual acceptance of the idea that a huge win is needed to surmount his corrupt schemes, as if this were unremarkable. That itself has degraded democratic expectations.
In short, the media has a big role to play in getting this whole story right, including the post-election accounting of all that went wrong.
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