I once looked forward to election nights the way normal people look forward to the Super Bowl. I can flip through the chapters of my life by remembering the newsrooms and ballrooms I spent them in, the cold pizza consumed, the politicians I visited in various states of euphoria or despair.
But election night no longer exists. It’s an echo of the past. And if the news media really wanted to keep the country from spinning apart, we would squash the whole concept under our collective heel and start again.
The chatty anchors, the magic election boards, the precinct tallies — all of that belonged to a world where results, even in close races, were more or less instantaneous. In 2004, I stood in the Ohio headquarters of a Democratic get-out-the-vote operation and watched the presidential election slip away from John F. Kerry in a matter of minutes, one county at a time.
That world blew up in 2020, however, when the pandemic forced a vast expansion in mail-in voting. Now, what you’re watching on election night is kind of meaningless — and misleading.
Follow Matt Bai's opinionsFollow
Sure, all the anchors and pundits will say all the correct things about how we’re not really going to know the results for days or even weeks. But everything they show you belies those warnings. All the familiar maps and numbers — the silly slogans like “America Decides 2022,” or whatever — will further the impression of results taking shape by the minute, when really all you’re seeing is an initial wave.
The crawl at the bottom of the screen tells you what percentage of precincts have reported their results, which used to mean something but means very little now, unless you know exactly how many votes were mailed in and from where.
It’ll feel as though you’re watching a taut, two-hour thriller, when really it’s more like a limited series playing out over several installments.
This would at least be entertaining if it weren’t so harmful. As an industry, we’ve spent a ton of time blaming Republicans for sowing distrust in the electoral system, and rightfully so. But the news media has never owned our own role in botching the 2020 election night, by making it sound as though Donald Trump was piling up leads all over the place, when we always knew that most of the mail-in votes were going to come from Democrats and be counted later.
No wonder so many Trump voters found it easy to accept the fiction that the election was stolen. One minute, they seemed to be winning big, and then all of a sudden, they weren’t. Trump’s bogus conspiracy theory seemed to confirm what they had seen with their own eyes.
So here we go again: another televised extravaganza, more colorful maps, another wave of election results that won’t actually tell you who’s winning. One way or the other, a lot of voters are going to end up feeling cheated.
And they are being cheated — not by the election machinery but by TV networks that cling to the outdated convention of a single election night. After Tuesday night, we should rethink and reinvent the way we report results, before the public completely loses its faith in the system.
Let’s cancel this phony biennial election show. I’ll miss the fun and finality of a good election night as much as anyone. But I’d miss a functioning democracy even more.