Neal Milner: TV Networks Are Going To Need A New Election Night Game Plan This Year - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


If the networks operate on election night the way they usually do, the country will be in big trouble.

The coverage could end up aiding and abetting. It might make an already frightening, turmoiled election even worse by succumbing to pressure or temptation and prematurely announcing the presidential winner.

Considering what’s been going on, that would not simply be a rectifiable rounding error. It would be a mistake with long-term political consequence.

Better to think about doing a good job by not announcing a winner at all.

This time, coverage needs to be different because the business as usual way is based on norms about elections that no longer exist.

Those norms allowed us to take for granted the nuts and bolts of the electoral process. They are gone.

Election norms are like any other norms. When they are effective, people can take things for granted without worrying or wondering. But when norms weaken or disappear, all that taken-for-grantedness and nonchalance goes out the window.

Vector illustration of a democratic donkey and a republican elephant in a TV studio debating at a lectern. They are angrily looking at each other. Concept for US politics, elections, television and the media, presidential elections, political parties, rivalry, conflicts and debates.

Think about your own experiences with past presidential elections. Maybe you voted, maybe not. Even if you didn’t, you assumed that people who wanted to vote could do so. You watched a little bit of election night coverage and went to bed knowing who won.

If you hit the sack before a winner was declared, which hardly ever happens, you didn’t worry too much. It will be worked out somehow through some kind of process that you did not really understand but did not worry about.

So, the U.S. Supreme Court rather than the electorate decided the 2002 Bush-Gore presidential election? Too bad — messy, convoluted, unfair, but we got through it. Both sides ultimately accepted it. And you and the country moved on.

In them good old days when norms were norms, come election night, the networks could zero in on essentially one question: “Who wins?”

Normally that’s their job. It’s what they do.

That coverage was like the ESPN tag line, “Are you ready for some football?”

And that is exactly the way a group of experts following this issue described the network coverage problem:

“The media should … transform their election night coverage from the election version of Monday Night Football (‘It’s Tuesday Night Election: are you ready for some winners?’).”

A football game has a definite outcome. When it’s over, it’s over. So does a presidential election. That is, most of the time, but a good chance not so this time.

Whatever we know about the presidential vote on election night is likely to be only a small and continuing part of a story that began way earlier with voter registration and will continue well past Election Day.

The real story is likely to be different this time because:

• Donald Trump has indicated he will never concede because the only way he could lose is if the election is rigged.

• Driven by the coronavirus pandemic, there will be a huge increase in mail ballots, which will require a much longer time to count.

• Trump has constantly (and falsely) attacked the integrity of the mail ballot. Many Republican voters have followed his lead.

• Democratic voters are considerably more likely to vote by mail than Republican voters.

• So, it is quite possible that Trump will take an early lead based on the disproportionate number of early-counted Republican voters.

• Trump may very well declare victory on the basis of those early, inaccurate returns. Who says he can’t?

• Thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of votes may either be uncounted or challenged.

• Important parts of this battle have already been going on for months, even years. The GOP agenda has been to make it harder to vote. The Democrats have fought back. There are already dozens of cases in the state and federal courts. The Republicans have a team (more like a small city) of 300 lawyers ready to go to court after election night. The Dems also have a team of hundreds of lawyers ready to go.

There are plausible election scenarios in the wind that would normally be considered irrelevant, overly dramatic, even nutty.

This does not include a listing of post-election scenarios so exotic, extraordinary and scary that they read like the list of worse-case side effects on a medical consent form.

All that suggests that the election aftermath will make the Bush-Gore legal post-election dust up seem like a wee disagreement among friends.

More to the point about coverage, it indicates that anointing the winner on election night could do more than make the networks look stupid.  It could make them look complicit.

Those critics of the football game approach give the networks some interesting suggestions. First, do not use exit polls. Under the best of circumstances, exit polls have biases. Under this election’s circumstances, the biases will be larger and riskier. These polls consider only in-person voters who will be disproportionately Republican.

Second, reduce the election night focus on the presidential horse race and spend more time telling other stories that are likely to become more important — delays in vote counting, difficulty at the polls as well as past and possibly future litigation.

Networks need to stress why they are not so sure about quickly picking a winner this time.

Third, oh, those projections. Projections have measures of statistical error. They don’t have measures for political error. Therefore, each network should have a bi-partisan panel of authoritative people to advise them about any projections before the network decides whether to present them.

Think of this panel as a group of chaperones trying to keep the dancing from getting out of hand.

These recommendations are about keeping the networks from becoming part of the problem and getting them to concentrate on the problems themselves.

Maybe things will go well. At the same time Trump has hinted that he may not leave office, he has also said that if he loses, he may go to live near his new golf course in Scotland. Much to the delight of the Scottish people.

The anti-Trump conservative Ross Douthat says Trump is bluffing about not accepting the results because Trump is a bully and bullies back down.

Who knows, right? But the point is there are plausible election scenarios in the wind that would normally be considered irrelevant, overly dramatic, even nutty.

As Ricky Ricardo would say, on election night the networks are going to have lots of ‘splainin’ to do — but a very different kind of ‘splainin.’


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Early election results nationwide have often been an element suppressing Hawaii's vote turnout....the 5 & 6 - hour time difference has led many late-in-the-day voters at the polls to just forget it.Interesting that Mr. Milner only mentions the Republican side as coming up with dirty tricks or bullying tactics.  Look a little harder and you'll see stuff on both sides.  Thank God the founders created multiple fail-safes to get to a Presidential pick even when disputed within-the-states' balloting is unavoidable. 

Haleiwa_Dad · 1 month ago

More races than the presidential are theater 'cause political backing has not changed:  money from deep pockets.Droning on and on will be the reporting of the day. If voters stop watching and go on with life, getting snippets on mobile devices, we can send a message of PRIORITIES HAVE CHANGED.

kateinhi · 1 month ago

The media is immune from shame. It shamelessly displays a bias in politics. The media shamelessly beats the drums of war, as with the infamous Iraq invasion.The corporate mass media has no problem with shameless complicity, in fact, it has become institutionalized with subjective editorials replacing investigative journalists, arbitrarily omitting inconvenient news, printing news from unanimous unnamed sources, and does so repetitiously just to make sure it gets its bias into the minds of "news" consumers.  And social media is even more shamelessly bias with its algorithms and censoring.US elections may devolve to lawyers and lawsuits in the Supreme Court again.Over time, this could replace the democratic process deciding the will of the people, and will be covered with a complicit media as if it is normal process in a Democratic Republic.

Joseppi · 1 month ago

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