It’s time for the U.S. to change its election night rituals.
Consider this: In 2018, it took nine days for Florida to finalize its governor’s race and 11 days for Georgia. It took six days to determine the results of the Arizona senate race. A week after the election, 10 House races and one Senate race were still undecided.
The reports on election night can be incomplete, misleading or inaccurate. So why the rush for results?
Official counting continues past election night. State and federal laws allow extensions of voting deadlines for military personnel and citizens living abroad. Absentee ballots and provisional ballots (required by law when there is a question about the voter’s status) often don’t show up in the first sets of reported numbers. Oregon, Washington and Colorado have a vote-by-mail system, which can slow the processing of ballots. Maine uses a ranked-choice system for its federal elections that requires a second round of counting if no candidate has a majority after the first round.
We can’t stop the networks from reporting the results that they have, but we can require that votes not be released to the networks until there is a reasonable certainty of the outcome.
Unfortunately, premature announcements result in questions about the validity of elections. If early reports differ from the more complete final counts, the urge to cry foul is strong. When the outcome of the ranked-choice voting system in Maine’s second congressional district resulted in a different winner after the second round of counting (as prescribed by law), the governor wrote “stolen election” on the election certificate. When bureaucratic problems dragged out the uncertainty of the extremely close Florida Senate race, the president tweeted “Must go with Election Night!” because the incomplete results on election night showed Republican Rick Scott winning. (Mr. Scott did win after all of the ballots were counted.)
News networks are under competing pressures. They want to be accurate, but they are also concerned about ratings and providing their viewers with results — fast. Delaying their sources of data will remove some of these pressures.
The 2000 presidential election should have been a clear lesson. After Al Gore called George W. Bush to concede the election, he discovered that there was a mistake in the news reports that resulted in his making an awkward second phone call retracting his concession.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In the U.K., candidates all stand together on a stage as voting officials announce the finalized election results. While we don’t need to adopt that custom, nothing bad happens there from not reporting the outcome until the results are in.
We can start small with the 2020 presidential election. The candidates should announce ahead of time that there won’t be any late-night phone calls or speeches. The rest of us can wait at least until the following afternoon when the results are more complete. There is no reason why hoarse candidates need to rush to give dull predictable speeches to exhausted crowds in the wee hours of the morning.
And concessions are not legally binding anyway. If a candidate concedes the election, but the election results later show that the candidate won, the loser doesn’t get to take the seat.
Americans like things fast. But accurate election results should be one thing worth waiting for.
Michael J. Towle is a professor of political science at Mount St. Mary's University; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.