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What to watch for: Incomplete early returns and premature claims of victory


This year, because of the ongoing pandemic, experts estimate that mail-in and absentee ballots might make up as many as 70% of all ballots cast in this election. It could take days to weeks to complete an accurate count of all votes.

When all ballots have been counted, the final results of the election may look different than they did on Election Night. This may seem obvious given the increased attention to a surge in early voting and absentee ballots. However, there is potential for a crisis of confidence. 

With absentee ballot requests indicating that Democrats are voting by mail at higher rates than Republicans, it is likely that the initial vote counts on Election Night will change substantially in the days or weeks that follow. This is particularly likely if the presidential election is close in battleground states like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin where they don’t begin counting absentee ballots until Election Day—making it likely that in these key states a significant proportion of Democratic votes will not be counted until after Election Day. 

This phenomenon could lead to a “blue shift” in the results for key battleground states in the days and weeks following Election Day, where the final and correct result of the election includes many more Democratic voters than the incomplete Election Night projections. This is also sometimes referred to as a “red mirage”, as incomplete early returns in some states may be proportionately more Republican than the final and correct result. 

It is quite likely that we won’t have a clear winner on Election Night, depending on the margins separating the Presidential candidates in key states and the number of outstanding absentee ballots to be counted. That could provide an opening for a candidate to make premature claims of victory, and such claims would likely be repeated or amplified on social media and elsewhere. Twitter has committed to labeling such premature claims, but not to remove them. Major news outlets will have a choice to make about how to cover this. And you will have a choice about how to discuss the situation with your audiences.

What can I do?

Be patient and share facts. Don’t amplify premature claims of victory. Be thoughtful about the data visualizations of election returns that you might share and whether they help people understand the role absentee ballots play. It’s important to continue to promote the message that Americans likely won’t know who won the election on Election Night, that we may see a shift in the initial results after Election Night, and that we should be skeptical of candidate’s claims of victory absent reporting confirming those results. 

What the Task Force is doing

The National Task Force on Election Crises (NTFEC) asked the major media outlets to detail four things: 

  1. how they plan to account for mail-in voting in their exit polling or voter surveys, 
  2. how they plan to contextualize results given the possibility of a blue shift/red mirage,
  3. how they plan to cover premature claims of victory, and 
  4. how they will ensure decision desks are insulated from internal or external pressure to call the race prematurely. 

In response, the Associated Press (AP) shared information with the NTFEC relating to how they plan to account for absentee ballots and their election survey methodology. They also publicized the process by which they declare winners here and here. The AP repeats in these articles: “Regarding race calling, AP does not make projections or name apparent or likely winners. If our race callers cannot definitively say a candidate has won, we do not engage in speculation.”

In additional coverage, the New York Times's Ben Smith wrote a piece about Fox News’ decision desk that details how Fox News insulates its decision desk from pressure and how it is planning to cover premature claims of victory (by allowing their commentators to support those claims while the decision desk avoids calling the election). Also, this week, Reuters noted, “If a campaign claims victory without sufficient evidence or disputes a network’s projections, executives say, the networks will report on those developments.”

We continue to work with reporters and news outlets to offer guidance on how to cover premature claims of victory. We will also be sharing recommendations about how to accurately depict data and employ visualizations given the unprecedented volume of absentee ballots.

Some good news—voters are prepared to wait

In collaboration with YouGov, the Task Force has launched the Weekly Voter Election Sentiment Tracking Poll. This week’s poll showed that only 20% of voters and 23% of GOP voters expect to know who will be president on Election Day. A majority of all groups expect to wait at least a few days before they know who won the presidential election. Similarly, only 28% of all voters expect early returns to be “mostly similar” to the final results. At the same time, 50% of all voters are “very” or “extremely” concerned about “our country's ability to conduct a free, fair, and safe election governed by law.” We still have work to do.

See more details and follow the tracking poll every week here.

Want more?

PEN America will be hosting a webinar today, October 14 (1:30-2:45pm ET), with decision-desk reporters to discuss election calls, projections, and how news organizations plan to navigate the challenges of Election Night 2020.

In addition to the resources linked on specific points above, the Task Force has prepared the Roadmap to a Free and Fair 2020 General Election for decisionmakers, the media, and public figures to use as a resource to help them prevent or respond to these crises, including an infographic that describes the post-election landscape.

Did someone forward you this email? Sign up here to receive weekly and rapid response messaging from the National Task Force on Election Crises. 
Our mission transcends party and ideology. The National Task Force on Election Crises is a diverse, cross-partisan group of more than 50 experts in election law, election administration, national security, cybersecurity, voting rights, civil rights, technology, media, public health, and emergency response. The Task Force’s core mission is to ensure a free and fair 2020 presidential election by recommending responses to a range of election crises. Our focus is ensuring that the election runs smoothly during challenging circumstances, that disputes are handled in a way that maximizes confidence in the outcome, and that there is a peaceful transition or continuation of power on January 20, 2021. The only electoral outcome the Task Force advocates is that the election is free and fair.
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