Twenty years ago — the last time a presidential election was not decided on election night or the next day — the news media were completely unprepared. As executive editor of The Washington Post, I had to call the night production manager after 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2000, and order that plates be taken off the presses that would have printed a final edition erroneously declaring George W. Bush the winner over Al Gore. Instead, the final edition had the accurate front-page headline: “Presidential Cliffhanger Awaits Florida Recount.” The national broadcast television networks had projected the wrong winner twice.
For the next five weeks, the media scrambled to cover a Florida recount that confronted us with “hanging chads,” confusing ballots, outmoded voting machines, disenfranchised voters, and hordes of lawyers making countless conflicting claims. Even after a controversial 5-4 US Supreme Court decision ended the recount on Dec. 12, and Bush was declared the winner, there were media investigations into what had happened in the Florida vote.
With a month left in this year’s presidential campaign and voting already underway, the challenges to the media greatly exceed what we faced in 2000. They must cover voting and vote-counting at least as much as they report on the campaign.
There are many questions to pursue.
How is in-person early voting progressing and what is its impact? Are there problems around the country with voter eligibility, access to safe polling places on Election Day, or mail voting procedures? Are there particular issues in minority communities?
Will voter intimidation be attempted at the polls as we saw earlier this month in Fairfax, Va., and what preparations have been made to combat it? What voter misinformation efforts are underway through mail, telephone, and social media, and what is being done about them? Are voter and vote-counting databases vulnerable to hacking? What is the impact of the many efforts to increase voter registration and turnout, especially among young adults and people of color? What legal challenges and court decisions are already affecting voting and vote counting throughout the country?
How are states and localities preparing to count the votes as timely and accurately as possible? How are they planning to avoid outside interference? What are the Republican and Democratic legal teams planning to do? What might be the 2020 version of the hanging chads of 2000? Could it become the validity of individual mail ballots?
It’s encouraging to see an increase in coverage of some of these vital voting issues in the national news media, partly in response to President Trump’s repeated false claims about fraud in mail-in voting. But much more still needs to be done. The broadcast and cable networks also must be disciplined and responsible about what they tell their audiences on and after election night about the progress of vote counting, even if it drags on for days or weeks. They must resist pressure from an impatient public and from manipulative politicians.
But voting takes place and is supervised locally in states and localities around the country, where voters will be dependent on their local news media for information about voting. This is at a time when news staffs of many local newspapers and television stations have been severely depleted by changing economics and rapacious chain, hedge fund, and private equity ownership.
Somehow, they must devote as much as possible of their remaining resources to investigating and informing their audiences about voting access, in-person voting, mail ballots, vote counting, political pressures, and court challenges in their localities and states. They need to be at polling places as much as possible, as well as in touch with the various public-interest groups that are monitoring the integrity of voting throughout the country.
This election will be as much a test of the role and performance of the news media in our democracy as it will be for politicians, parties, election officials, the courts, and citizens themselves. Failure could endanger our representative democracy. If local news media fail that test, it also could greatly dramatize the American local news crisis that is not getting enough national attention.
Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, is a journalism professor at Arizona State University and author of “All About the Story: Power, Politics and The Washington Post.”