This year’s election will have problems, and journalists need to handle them with care. Here are five guideposts for doing so.

Elections are the highest of journalism’s high-wire acts. Everyone’s paying attention, and mistakes can be devastating.

This year, that pressure is intensified. Election administrators are under stress because of the COVID-19 pandemic, changing laws and a significantly higher number of mail ballots. Media manipulators, even those within government, will seek to turn normal mistakes into a nefarious plot to steal the election.

When things go wrong — and they will — there is a greater potential for journalists to suggest that isolated problems are part of a broader scheme to disrupt the election. They may even do so unintentionally.

“People tend to forget that both the mail and the voting process are run by humans and not by, like, voting gods,” said Jessica Huseman, an election reporter for ProPublica. “Things are going to go wrong, and understanding how to put these wrong things in context is really our job.”

Problems in elections are not new. What is new this year is the scale of change due to the pandemic, said David Scott, The Associated Press’ deputy managing editor for operations, at a recent AP/American Press Institute event on the vote count this year and the effect of the pandemic on the election.

States that had just begun the process of shifting voters from in-person to mail-in voting have had to accelerate and compress that transition. Add to that a likely shortage of poll workers and a projected high turnout, and the potential for problems multiplies.

“If things don’t go perfectly, the first conclusion should not be that it’s fraud or malfeasance or the Russians,” Scott said. “We want to do reporting, we want to go out and try to figure out what’s taking place, but we need to do that reporting and not leap to the worst-case scenario right from the beginning.”  

Journalists can employ a number of strategies to avoid these traps and aid rather than frighten the public. Knowing which problems are typical, versus which are genuinely alarming is one place to start. Planning for the extraordinary is another. 

With the help of experts in voting administration, election law, misinformation and covering elections, API’s Trusted Election Network has identified five guideposts that can help journalists cover the voting in ways that inform rather than inflame.

1. Present human errors as just that, putting them in context to avoid the suggestion that they amount to dishonest activity.

Elections experts emphasize that glitches involving elections, both with mail-in and in-person voting, can often be attributed to human error. 

“Any time you get 150 million Americans doing something at the same time and relying on a million volunteers, everything is not going to go perfectly. Mistakes are entirely normal,” said David Becker, executive director at the Center for Election Innovation and Research.  

An example of this is ballot misprints. With more people across the country requesting mail-in ballots because of the pandemic, there will be — and already have been — mistakes in their distribution. “People tend to overlook the fact that ballots are basically one big commercial printing operation,” said ProPublica’s Huseman.

Last month, nearly 100,000 people in Brooklyn received absentee ballots with the wrong name and address on them. In Franklin County, Ohio, where Columbus is located, nearly 50,000 people received ballots with incorrect information such as the wrong precinct or congressional district. In Michigan, some military personnel got ballots that included the wrong name where Vice President Mike Pence’s name should have been. 

Even though election officials are working to correct them, these errors are fodder for those spreading the message that mail-in voting is unreliable. In the Brooklyn mixup, President Donald Trump tweeted that it amounted to “Big Fraud,” prompting fact-checks from a number of journalists. He did the same with the Ohio and Michigan episodes. 

To avoid playing into these allegations of fraud, reporters should know the basic process of how absentee ballots are sent out by their local jurisdictions so that if irregularities arise, they can quickly provide needed context to their audiences. 

For example, said David Levine, a former elections administrator and elections integrity fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, reporters should know in advance if these ballots are produced and mailed by a vendor and whether that vendor has had problems before. And they should be prepared to tell voters what to do in these cases: Should they wait for a new ballot, or take some kind of corrective step with the one they received? If they do need to do something, which government entity or agency should they contact?

2. When problems occur, be clear about their exact scale and scope.

If local election administrators have trouble with ballots, voter registrations or voting technology in a few geographically distributed places, a reporter might be tempted to write that these problems are happening “across the state.” In reality, perhaps they affect a small number of the state’s registered voters. 

An example of that is when there are reports of ballots or mail that might include ballots showing up in unusual places like ditches or garbage containers. Mail-dumping incidents have been highlighted recently in Wisconsin, New Jersey and in Glendale and Santa Monica, Calif. Some but not all were reported to have included ballots.

It’s important to provide readers with the scale and scope of these episodes because partisans cite them to suggest that mail or ballot destruction is part of a scheme to affect the vote. When mail was found in a ditch in Wisconsin, the right-wing Gateway Pundit wrote that it was part of a Democratic scheme to steal the election. This false framing “built upon and amplified existing narratives that mail-in voting is untrustworthy and other unfounded claims that there will be widespread fraud in the 2020 U.S. election,” the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) reported in a recent study of mail-dumping incidents and how partisans attempt to exploit them. During the Sept. 30 debate against Biden, Trump claimed that ballots were being dumped in rivers and creeks

Cases of mail-dumping are rare, isolated and hardly ever involve ballot fraud, so it is important for journalists to report that context. As the EIP report noted, the most-cited reason for mail-dumping is work overload among postal carriers. Reporters should also know and inform voters what happens to ballots that are dumped in their jurisdictions and what voters who want to know the status of their ballots can do. In some states voters can track their mail-in ballots.  

3. Be aware that reports about poll problems could influence people not to vote. Help people navigate those problems.

On Election Day (or before, in places where there is early in-person voting), voters watching the news might also be trying to decide whether it’s worth the hassle to vote. If they see stories about long lines or trouble at polling places, they might decide to stay home. That may be true even if problems highlighted in news stories aren’t occurring at a voter’s specific polling place. 

But reporters out in the field looking for a story will, naturally, go to the polling places that have the longest lines and interview the most frustrated voters. They might find someone whose voter registration could not be found. They will put those interviews on television or their websites. They might quote someone who alleges that the vote is being suppressed — even if it’s not. Instead what’s happening might be that a lot of people want to vote, and poll workers are stressed out with the turnout and with managing the safety precautions necessary because of COVID-19.

Reporters who do frame these incidents as widespread problems can convey the opposite of what they are intending. 

“Nobody wants to inadvertently dissuade a potential voter from participating. But reporting uncontextualized problems could cause some voters to opt out by spreading the message that voting is hard, that if you show up to vote, you’re probably going to wait in a long line, you’re probably going to get into an argument with with a poll worker who can’t find your name on a list and that your ballot might not count anyway,” Becker said. 

In some places, voting will be hard and made worse by confusion or mismanagement at the polls, and those stories are valid. Journalists should outline the reasons for the long lines or ballot troubles. But it is important to be precise about where that is happening, whether the same problems are occurring at other polling places, how many people and precincts are affected, what alternatives voters have and when officials expect the problems to clear up.  

When confusion occurs during early voting or on Election Day, the most important thing a reporter can do is help voters navigate those problems, Becker said. 

4. Put later-than-usual results in context. 

 By now, most journalists covering the election have published stories making it clear that America may not know the results on the evening of Nov. 3. This story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and this one from The New York Times are good examples of preparing readers for the likelihood that “Election Night” winner declarations are unlikely. 

Election experts are urging journalists to avoid framing slower-than-usual results as a “delay,” though.  

“Unfortunately the word delay can be seen by some as suggesting something other than what’s going on,” said Levine, from the Alliance for Securing Democracy. ”What’s important is for folks to recognize and understand and try and explain what exactly is going on and how it is affecting the timing.”

Election results may come later than usual due to high turnout and a higher number of provisional ballots. The high number of mail-in votes could also affect the timing in states that don’t start counting them until Election Day. Then there are the unforeseen problems, like a lack of poll workers due to a new COVID-19 outbreak in a specific precinct.

Election experts also emphasize that often what the public hears about election results aren’t the official results in any case. That official “canvass date” comes later, depending on the state. 

For journalists, the problem isn’t just uncertainty. The time lag between the actual voting and the announcement of results could open the door to mis- or disinformation designed to erode confidence in the count. During that period, journalists will need to be on guard against manipulation attempts by hoaxers and bad actors.

The FBI made the threat clear last month in a public service announcement

“Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy,” the bureau wrote. 

But it’s also important to convey that long counts sometimes do happen.  

“Just because it’s taking a long time to count the votes, that by itself doesn’t mean something bad is happening,” The Associated Press’ Election Decision Editor Stephen Ohlemacher said at a Sept. 23 API/AP discussion about how races are called. 

The AP editors also said that if the news service is not calling a race, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the race is close. It might just mean it’s still early in the process, that not enough votes have been counted to make the call. 

Local reporters can prepare for later-than-usual election results by doing a lot of explanatory reporting about the process ahead of the election, said the AP’s Scott at the same event. “The number one thing you can do is know your rules and report the heck out of it and explain the heck out of it, right now and through Election Day,” he said, noting that helping readers and viewers understand how they are affected is more interesting than “horse race” stories. 

Reporters should also make readers aware that although some might try to connect a long count with a “fraud” narrative, that connection actually doesn’t make logical sense. Those counting the votes are doing their jobs carefully. 

“There is an inherent contradiction in the idea that it’s taking long because it’s fraud,” said Larry Norden, the director of the election reform program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s actually taking long because it’s not fraud.”

5. Demystify polling place equipment and technology. 

Reporters should know before the voting starts what kind of election technology their local jurisdictions use. What model is it? Who makes it? Is a vendor selling and servicing it? What history of problems does it have? That applies to both check-in equipment (some jurisdictions use electronic poll books) and voting machines themselves.

Experts cite several reasons members of the media will want to know all this. 

The obvious one is that if problems happen, reporters will be able to explain quickly what happened and why. When the system, or part of it, breaks down, officials will be focused on getting it fixed and managing a backed-up line of voters, not explaining the system to the press. 

Reporters should also know the terminology involved, not necessarily to use it in their stories but so they can quickly grasp what officials are talking about. Say an election worker says a machine “needs to be calibrated.” 

As Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor to The Democracy Fund’s election program, explains it, some machines use setup technology similar to the kind employed by early smartphones that had to be calibrated with a stylus. When that calibration is off, the machines can behave in strange ways and make voters think their votes might not have been properly recorded. (The Democracy Fund supports general operations at API, and also contributes to ElectionSOS and Trusting News, two projects fiscally hosted at API.)

Second, if voting machines break down, misinformation will almost certainly circulate about the cause. Journalists will be in a better position to debunk those falsehoods if they understand how the machines work. Misinformation could even circulate about broken voting machines when everything is really fine. Patrick imagines a picture floating around social media of a broken machine — perhaps a hoax aimed at convincing people not to vote at a specific location. She suggests that reporters even get a picture of the machine before the voting starts, if they can, for reference.

Finally, journalists will want to hold the machine vendors and the government officials who contracted with them accountable. They’ll want to know whether the machines or vendors have had problems elsewhere and whether the errors could have been seen in advance and prevented. These are basic questions most journalists will ask. But if they go into the reporting with a knowledge of the equipment, they’ll be better prepared to ask them.

Want more tips for journalists? TEN will produce more specific tips for reporters on how best to cover the voting, responsibly handle stories about problems, and avoid amplifying misinformation. Sign up to join the Trusted Elections Network to get each tip.

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