To all members of the media:
We write to you today as members of the National Council on Election Integrity — a bipartisan group of more than 40 former elected officials, former Cabinet secretaries, retired military officials, and civic leaders who are committed to defending the integrity of the 2020 election and to ensuring that every American’s vote is counted this November.
We are confident that we, as a nation, can conduct elections that are free, fair, honest, safe, and secure amid the COVID-19 pandemic this year — but our ability to do so depends on the media playing a pivotal role in informing the public about how counting the votes may be different this year and why it may take longer than usual to get results.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of millions of Americans are casting absentee ballots through the mail this year. In fact, experts predict that approximately 50% or more of all voters may vote with absentee ballots this year — up from 25% four years ago.
While some states, such as Arizona and Florida, have a track record of successfully tabulating large volumes of absentee ballots quickly and efficiently, other states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, do not. In both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, fewer than 5% of voters used absentee ballots in 2016. This year, between 30% and 40% of Pennsylvanian and Wisconsinites are expected to do so — to the tune of millions of ballots. Complicating the ability to get results swiftly in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin is the fact that election officials in those two states cannot begin processing — let alone counting — absentee ballots until Election Day itself. With millions of ballots at stake, this process will take some time.
Voters, the candidates, and the political parties, will all need to be patient while every vote cast in accordance with applicable laws is counted. And the media has a unique responsibility to help empower Americans to collectively embrace patience while our state and local election officials do their jobs. Accurate election coverage by news organizations is more important than ever.
To help all members of the media rise to this moment, we urge you to adopt the following recommendations, if you have not yet done so, and we praise those journalists and newsrooms who have already incorporated these principles:
- Prepare your audience for “Election Week” rather than “Election Night.”
The public should be prepared for the vote-counting process to play out over days — and in some states, weeks — and everyone should know that in many states, the vote counts on election night represent partial results that may not be indicative of the winner.
- Educate the public about voting and vote-counting processes.
Vote-counting processes are different in every jurisdiction. Educating the public about vote-counting processes will help protect against misinformation and fears of corruption.
- Include more information, not less.
Information about election returns should be presented clearly and with context that includes relevant unknown data — such as the number of outstanding mail-in ballots and provisional ballots, as well as the number of requested ballots vs. the number that were returned. Additionally, reporting should include details such as whether the percentage of precincts reporting includes their absentee ballots and provisional ballots. Disclaimers about the number of absentee votes and provisional ballots that are yet to be counted will be critical.
- Avoid speculation.
Help your audience understand that anecdotes don’t amount to a full or accurate picture of who might win. Exit polls, early voting data, and long lines at certain polling are just pieces of the overall puzzle, which must be examined comprehensively. Election officials should be your primary sources for election results.
- Do not call or project the election until the outcome is utterly clear.
Prepare to report that the election is “too early to call” and emphasize the importance of a careful count. Coverage should focus on getting as much information as possible to the public until election results are confirmed by experts and election officials.
- Election-related violence should not be blown out of proportion.
Any violence related to this year’s election should be covered within context. Hyperbolic coverage of violence will encourage those who want to create chaos which will, in turn, lead to more violence.
For our democracy to work, every voter must have their voices heard and their votes counted. The media plays a vital role in this — especially in a year when it is likely to take longer to conduct a fair and accurate vote count. With the media’s help, the 2020 election can occur as safely and smoothly as possible, and the outcomes can be trusted by both the winners and losers.
Thank you for your consideration of these recommendations.
The National Council on Election Integrity