Not all of my votes in this past election did much good, but I can be proud of them since I did my research. I voted early, as did a friend who ended up having to be out of state unexpectedly on Election Day.
But for those voting on Election Day, especially if they were still in line at 7:30 p.m. when polls officially closed (those in line at that time can still cast ballots), there was a bit of a damper when the governor's race was called almost immediately, before more than a tiny bit of the vote had been counted.
I get it. This is a red state, and despite the qualifications of any Democrat, the fact that there's a D behind their name means they're less likely to be elected. But what does it say to the people still in line waiting to vote when they hear the person they intend to vote for has lost?
I know I wasn't the only one irritated, and it wasn't because my preferred candidate lost (that was expected). Over the past several years, I've watched as faith in the media and in our electoral process has been mindlessly battered, not necessarily because of things that were done, but because of rumors and conspiracy theories intended to cast doubt on our institutions. Now, every move by local media is scrutinized and placed, however wrongly, in a national context (because apparently we all take orders from the national mainstream media, however that's defined today).
It's not hard to get frustrated.
The Associated Press has taken on the responsibility of collecting data on elections since the 1848 election of President Zachary Taylor. Its necessity wasn't obvious at first, despite the fact the U.S. didn't (and still doesn't) have a central election authority. Elections are run by more than 8,000 local governments with different rules for how and when votes are counted.
We like to make things more difficult than they have to be; we're 'Muricans, dang it.
In nine states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, preliminary processing (opening mail/absentee ballots and verifying signatures) can't begin until Election Day, and Maryland doesn't begin processing till 10 a.m. the Thursday after the election. In some, early and absentee/mail ballots can't be counted until Election Day, and in still others, they can't be counted until polls close.
Often, then, the in-person Election Day vote is counted first, which tends to break more advantageously for Republicans. Once early and absentee votes, which tend to skew Democratic, are added, leads can seem to evaporate. That plus a lack of knowledge about how votes are processed and impure motives can lead to conspiracy theories about "vote dumps." Take a look at Twitter right now and despair for humanity if you don't believe me.
Because of the decentralized nature of our elections, it's been AP that has "called" races (mostly accurately), based on returns from local and state election authorities, the work of its elections teams and, since 2018, use of AP VoteCast, which is a survey of the electorate conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago considered more accurate than exit polls.
I don't dispute the vital role that AP plays, but I do question calling any race as soon as polls close. Though I haven't heard of anything on the scale of the Chicago Tribune's 1948 "Dewey defeats Truman" debacle (though other papers also miscalled the race) regarding the AP, getting any election result wrong reflects badly on all of us in the media, regardless of who made the mistake, and so can calling races too early.
Calling an election while people are still waiting to vote (because not everyone who waits till Election Day to vote can do so at slow times of the day) can damage belief in the fairness of the system. One of my Facebook friends told me that his sister was waiting in line in Los Angeles in 1980 when the presidential race was called for Ronald Reagan. Seeing no point in voting, she got out of line and went home. How many voters here might have done the same after the speedy call on the governor's race last Tuesday? It likely wouldn't have made a difference in statewide votes, but in local races, those lost votes could have proved pivotal.
We should all feel confident that our votes count. I've been at the Election Commission offices the night of an election and seen votes tallied in real time. I know that it can take time to get everything counted, and in some places, it can take a week or more to get results thanks to laws that won't allow processing and counting of early and mail ballots, races that trigger automatic recounts, and sheer hyperpartisanship.
But we want to know now.
It's been a little over a decade since I worked on the news side of things, but I thought we wanted to be accurate more than first. While the call of the governor's race proved correct, what would it have hurt to wait till at least 8 p.m. to call the race so that people still in line might not feel their votes are wasted?
If we want to increase voter participation, that might be a good place to start.
Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at email@example.com. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.