Tuned In

Call It! Or Not. The Election Night Dilemma

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Aaron Barnhart has a provocative post at TV Barn arguing that the networks should abandon their longstanding policy of not calling Presidential races until the polls in a given state have closed. 

I agree with him on the general principle. I don’t think that TV networks, or any journalism organizations, should make their decisions on the basis of promoting behaviors they consider to be civically righteous. In this case, the fact that voting is a civic good should not be a factor: if journalists have actual reliable information, their job is to report it, not to decide that it would be better for society to withhold it.

Likewise, arguing that this policy keeps a network projection from affecting downballot races (as voters out West walk off voting lines and don’t vote for Congress, etc.) is not just irrelevant but misleading. If journalists have information and hold it back solely to keep turnout up, that in itself is “affecting the election.” 

So that’s how I see the issue on principle. In practice, there are not many scenarios in which I could imagine networks being able to justifiably call the election that early. The first reason is that the networks, in the past few election cycles, have been slower to call elections because they’ve seen that polls can be wrong and exit polls can be off. And arguably this year, there are so many complicating factors—early voting, voting lines, exit polls, a Bradley effect or lack thereof, a cellphone / young voter effect or lack thereof—that it’s hard to fathom how they could do anything but be more cautious this time out. (Which is the sense I get from people at the networks.) 

The other issue is simpler: the Heisenberg principle. The problem with calling any state before its voting is concluded is that it’s impossible to know the effect of the call on the not-yet-completed voting (or in whose favor it would run). Given that, and given how long it usually takes to call the closer battleground states, it’s hard to imagine a candidate this time conclusively getting to 270 electoral votes—in states where balloting is already completed—before the polls close on the West Coast. (That said, I have no crystal ball here.) 

Question: does your concern about democracy outweigh your desire to get some sleep election night?