The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How to promote trust in the 2020 election

A voting booth inside Madison Heights City Hall in Madison Heights, a suburb of Detroit, on Sept. 24, the first day of early voting in Michigan. (Nick Hagen/For The Washington Post)

Nancy Gibbs is the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The only thing more important than who wins the 2020 election is whether most voters accept it. They don’t all have to like it; the losing side will be anguished, afraid and appalled. But a broad rejection of the outcome will make our democracy implode. This year, with record turnout likely, a pandemic raging and a president preemptively rejecting any outcome other than victory, we’ve lost our normal margin for error. So how do we promote the public trust on which everything else depends?

Our elections have always been a jumble of local rules and clunky systems. Many voters don’t know that election night “results” are always unofficial. That’s because, normally, as the last polls close or within a matter of hours, the winner and loser are clear, the latter concedes, the former exults and all the peculiar formalities come weeks later.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center warns that the president is doing the work of our foreign adversaries by undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/The Washington Post)

This year, faced with the prospect of no concessions, relentless legal challenges or civil unrest, it falls to the newsroom managers at ABC, NBC, Fox News, CBS, CNN and the Associated Press to make clear exactly what votes are legal and binding and what is projection based on models, surveys and early data. This means sharing in detail and in advance their methodology for reporting results; how they have accounted for early and mail-in votes; and the basis for projecting a winner in any race.

Changes are already underway: In the past, networks have reported vote tallies as “percentage of precincts reporting.” But in a year when perhaps 80 million ballots will be cast early or by mail, the “precincts reporting” standard would be misleading. A more precise metric would be “returns as a percentage of the expected total vote,” and newsrooms should disclose their methods for that calculation well before Election Day.

When the novel coronavirus hit, networks recruited an army of epidemiologists and health experts to educate the public about a new virus. Election coverage needs an expanded cast of state and local officials, data scientists and experts in election law, cybersecurity and disinformation to focus on what is happening more than what will or might happen. And the constant subtext should be, “This is how we know this to be true.”

By explaining both the counting process and the standards for projecting outcomes, newsrooms can lay a foundation either for declaring a winner once polls close or concluding that it might be days or weeks before that winner can be known. The chance of a big swing in who’s ahead, from the “red mirage” to “the blue shift,” requires newsrooms to constantly remind us which votes have been counted and which remain outstanding. Voters need to know, for instance, that Ohio and Florida are allowed to pre-process mail-in ballots ahead of Nov. 3, but Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are not.

This is why many newsrooms are talking about “election week” rather than election night; but they are contending with an incumbent president who has not missed a chance to repeat and retweet that a careful process is corrupt on its face. News organizations, as well as Facebook and Twitter, have promised to push back against premature claims of victory by any candidate. Rules and transparency will help insulate them from outside pressure. Meanwhile, given the real threats from bad actors, foreign and domestic, newsrooms would do well to review and reveal their standards for reporting on disinformation efforts without amplifying them.

It probably doesn’t help that both sides are preparing for charges of “fraud” or “suppression.” So in the inevitable event of counting irregularities, news organizations can serve the cause of transparency by explaining how such charges were discovered and resolved, and clarify whether such errors are nefarious or innocent.

For example, President Trump thought he spied “A Rigged Election” last week when roughly 49,000 incorrect ballots were mailed to early voters in central Ohio. But it is important to note that those voters will be getting corrected ballots in ample time, and that the county’s election board, which owned up to its mistake quickly, is bipartisan.

Newsrooms must finally recognize the risks of rushing to judgment and calling races or trends too soon. If they find they’ve made an error, small or large, they should reveal and explain it immediately, to prevent it from being mistaken for a systemic threat or attack on the election as a whole.

At the moment, barely half the public says they trust the media to act in the public interest. So it is critically important for newsrooms to rebuild that trust in order to perform their essential role in telling democracy’s story. That’s something we can all vote for.

Read more:

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

Mike Murphy: A simple way news networks could halt misinformation on election results

Jennifer Rubin: How to minimize 2020 election chaos

The Post’s View: Early voting has brought more ominous signs for Election Day. States can still fix things.

Edward B. Foley: How to avoid Bush v. Gore 2.0