Election after election, it’s the same story, different county. Somewhere, a high-profile election is too close to call. The outcome seems to hang on the tiniest of margins. With absentee and provisional ballots yet to be counted, disappointed television viewers go to bed at night not knowing who “won”. Discrepancies in the election night numbers come to light that election administrators are accustomed to addressing as part of the canvass process, but voters don’t typically see. Reporters struggle to come up with a sensible narrative to explain what’s going on, and start speculating on air about ballots that have been ‘lost’ or ‘found’. The election administrator tries to explain that the process is working as intended, but eventually throws in the towel and issues a statement pledging to do better next time. In a close election, there has to be a win scenario where the people counting the ballots don’t inevitably look like morons. We’ve all heard the dubious Election Officials’ Prayer: “Lord, I don’t care who wins, but please let it be a landslide.” If we are going to get past the pervasive sense, as a profession, that we are all just one too-close-to-call election away from a career-ending media frenzy, we need to quit doing the same thing and expecting a different result. We need to package our process more understandably.
Jargon is part of our problem. We need to stop using nonsensical terms of art like “unofficial results” when what we really mean is “partial results” or “raw data”. The terminology makes no sense to anyone who doesn’t have insider knowledge of how elections are run. We’re the people in charge of counting the ballots; consequently, anything we report is “official”: But we need to do more than that.
We need to rethink the way we simplify the story arc of the ballot count, even on our own websites, into a mere election night infographic showing a point somewhere between “0% reporting” and “100% reporting”.
We need to quit misleading people into thinking that we count – from start to finish – hundreds of thousands of ballots per hour in a few hours after the polls close, and that anything after that is an error-fixing recount.