An early call

I voted the first Wednesday morning of early voting, and there was a line. I can’t imagine waiting till Election Day.

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 (Arkansans need to get beyond the idea that winning is everything, and the parties need to recruit people who intend to serve constituents’ best interests, not settle grievances). 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?

When polls close at 7:30 p.m., it really doesn’t serve the public interest to announce a winner immediately. Screenshot from Kevin Kelly’s Twitter page.

I know I wasn’t the only one irritated, and it wasn’t because my preferred candidate lost (that was expected, unfortunately, even though his qualifications and abilities to listen, learn and compromise made him the clearly superior candidate). 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). I’ve lost count of how many times someone has accused John Brummett of being on the DNC payroll; pretty sure the DNC wouldn’t pay him to criticize them.

It’s not hard to get frustrated when you see all these things that have nothing to do with newsgathering on the local level and that are usually overblown and/or mistaken tarring your chosen profession. Sometimes it can even be the things that never seemed like a problem till recently.

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.

That’s what we do here. We like to make things more difficult than they have to be; we’re ’Muricans, dang it. Streamlining processes to improve efficiency and accountability (and, you know, making things equitable and fair everywhere) … yeah, that’s not gonna happen. We like our patchwork laws, dadgummit! Who cares if it makes things more arduous, time-consuming or doesn’t provide equitable access, right?

Counting votes is a long, hard and thankless task, especially in this political atmosphere. Leave it to the professionals; they know what they’re doing. If you haven’t observed or taken part in ballot processing before, you’re not going to understand what you see. Image found on MIT Technology Review.

Thirty-eight states and the U.S. Virgin Islands allow processing to begin before Election Day, but vary on how much processing and when counting can begin (Arkansas can start processing ballots seven days before the election, but can’t begin counting till 8:30 a.m. Election Day, with no results reported till polls close). 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 (Connecticut leaves the decision up to local vote registrars, the board of elections chooses in Ohio, and Puerto Rico doesn’t specify when it can be done). 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” (a perfectly acceptable phrase denoting how ballots are counted in batches then added to the total that becomes ominous to the conspiratorial-minded). 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.

In 1948, this was news (big news). Now it’s history. Photo by AP.

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.

There were more than a few reports of voter intimidation throughout the country (especially Maricopa County, Ariz.), including at least one in Little Rock. This sort of stuff discourages voting. Editorial cartoon by Dennis Draughon, Capitol Broadcasting Co.

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. Especially since 2015 or so, some have been conditioned to expect instantaneous results, largely because they don’t understand the process of counting votes, which election boards have pretty much down to a science, but even science can be frustrated by volume and time.

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? I seem to recall when I was a kid and when I first started working elections that we wouldn’t start broadcasting results till a half-hour after polls closed.

If we want to increase voter participation, that might be a good place to start. After that, maybe we can start work on reforming how elections are handled by the government. One thing at a time.

Meanwhile, if I have to deal with politics, I’ll make sure to make time for a snuggle session with Charlie.