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Opinion How news networks are preparing for the possibility of a delayed vote count

Palm Beach County election workers count votes in Riviera Beach, Fla., during the Florida primary election Aug. 18.
Palm Beach County election workers count votes in Riviera Beach, Fla., during the Florida primary election Aug. 18. (Saul Martinez/For The Washington Post)

“And Wisconsin goes for . . . nobody, yet.” That’s the kind of inconclusive message you may hear often on election night, as television networks try to cover the results of a presidential contest unlike any other in our history. Viewers should be grateful for the caution.

Journalists at all the major networks use similar language to describe the challenge of reporting the Nov. 3 outcome. They recognize that because many votes will be cast by mail, the counting will be slow in some states and the final result may be delayed for days. Commendably, all the networks are preparing for a “decision night” that may not yield an immediate decision.

“There’s a lot of responsibility for us. We take it very seriously,” Bret Baier of Fox News, who will be co-anchoring that network’s coverage, stressed in an interview. “If the difference in the number of absentee ballots yet to be counted is too large, you can’t make the call.”

I spoke this week with senior political journalists at Fox News, ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC. They’ve all been pondering the unusual political dynamics caused by the coronavirus pandemic. More voters will be casting absentee ballots, which often take longer to count than in-person votes. This mail-in electorate is expected to skew sharply Democratic.

A September CNN poll found that 78 percent of Joe Biden’s supporters plan to vote early or by mail, while 68 percent of President Trump’s supporters want to vote in person on Election Day. In Pennsylvania, 70 percent of requests for absentee ballots came from Democrats and only 29 percent from Republicans, the New York Times reported this month.

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Think about election night: The returns that are available by midnight, say, will be heavy with in-person votes, and they might show that Trump is leading in enough states to win an electoral college majority. The president, bolstered by these initial returns, might declare victory. But until the mail-in votes are counted in key swing states, such a declaration could be premature.

“This will be an election like no other,” cautioned Steve Kornacki, the national political correspondent for NBC and MSNBC. Tempers will be high, and so will uncertainty about the result.

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David Chalian, the political director at CNN, explained: “If someone out there is claiming victory, and we haven’t counted the vote yet and made a call, we have to be clear that the facts don’t back up that claim. . . . One thing that’s critical is that we be as transparent as possible about what is and isn’t in the vote count, and what we know about the still-outstanding vote.”

Trump and his supporters have been working overtime to delegitimize mail-in votes. A blatant example was the claim this month by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany that a “fair” election will be one “where we know who the president of the United States is on election night. That’s how the system is supposed to work.” Nonsense. The system is supposed to count every vote.

The stakes on Election Day are huge, and voters on both sides will want some indication that night of how the race is trending. The networks plan to use “exit polls,” which this year will include telephone sampling that captures absentee voters. There are two polling consortia: the National Election Pool, used by ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC; and VoteCast, used by Fox News and the Associated Press. Competing narratives shouldn’t be a danger here. “Two high-quality surveys are better than one,” argued Scott Clement, the polling director at The Post, who has used both.

Elections are marquee marketing events for the networks, and the danger is that journalists will get caught in the hype and hysteria of a rush to judgment — or in claims of fraud by either side. But the networks seem to understand the danger. “We may need to tell voters that we don’t know who won the election tonight. We may need a few more days,” cautioned Rick Klein, the political director for ABC.

Journalists remember the embarrassment of mistaken early calls that Al Gore had won the 2000 election. “Humility is always the key,” noted John Dickerson, a senior political analyst and “60 Minutes” correspondent at CBS. “Delay is a sign of rigor.”

The public seems to get it. A recent poll by The Post and the University of Maryland found that 53 percent of respondents believed that it will take two to three days to know the winner, and that 62 percent were very or somewhat confident that votes would be counted accurately.

This has been a crazy campaign season. But prominent journalists are thinking hard about how to avoid making it worse with hasty judgments on election night.

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Read more:

Greg Sargent: Huge numbers of Republicans say mail-voting is fraudulent. That’s ominous.

Jennifer Rubin: With anxiety over voting by mail, we need a new strategy

Jonathan Capehart: Vote like Miss Sylvia: Hand-deliver your mail-in or absentee ballot

The Post’s View: If you can’t vote by mail, here’s how you can safely do it

Greg Sargent: As vote-by-mail begins, there are grounds for (very) cautious optimism