It’s time to retire the term “election night.”
The semiannual national tradition of staying up a few hours past bedtime to know who will control our government is over. From close races to voting by mail to human error, it’s becoming clear that counting votes no longer fits neatly into prime-time television windows. Reporters and politicos should prepare to practice patience when handling and digesting the results.
The recent chaos surrounding the Iowa caucuses was just a taste of what’s to come. Due to the lack of results, there was no clear winner, which created confusion rather than clarity in the search for a narrative on election night. But while the Iowa crisis might have been avoided with a working app, the 2020 elections won’t be as easy to uncomplicate.
Looking beyond the 2000 presidential election (which wasn’t decided until more than a month after Election Day), the 2018 midterm elections were a prime example of how the narrative of a cycle can evolve beyond election night.
By the Wednesday morning after that election, 22 House races and three Senate races remained uncalled by The Associated Press, and it looked like Democrats would gain approximately 30 House seats and Republicans would gain a handful of Senate seats. Thus 2018 was at first broadly regarded as a split decision.
The narrative of the midterm elections, however, should have been very different. Once all the votes were counted weeks later, Democrats had flipped a net of 40 House seats while Republicans netted just two Senate seats. And the only reason the GOP gained Senate seats at all was because virtually all of the competitive races took place in friendly, red territory. The 2018 cycle was undoubtedly a backlash against President Donald Trump, even if election night coverage told (and Republicans spun) a different story.
This year, close races and uncounted ballots could delay finality in the presidential race and the fight for the Senate.
In 2016, The Associated Press called Pennsylvania for Trump at 1:35 a.m. on Nov. 9. A 2:29 a.m. Trump call in Wisconsin was enough to put him over the top, even with a handful of states still outstanding. The AP called Minnesota for Hillary Clinton at 11:09 a.m. on Wednesday, Arizona wasn’t called until Thursday, followed by New Hampshire and Michigan. Even if just a couple of states are closer in November and thus unable to be called, that will prolong the result.
The biggest hurdle to finality this year might be Arizona, a presidential battleground and home to one of the most competitive Senate races in the country. Even if Arizona delivers a clear Senate winner in November, knowing who controls the Senate may not be decided until a potential January runoff for one of Georgia’s seats.
Credibility at stake
Even before the November elections, it’s plausible Democrats won’t have selected their nominee until a brokered convention in Milwaukee in July. So the era of knowing the presidential nominees before school lets out might be over as well.
Patience in waiting for the votes to be counted and analyzing the result is an important factor in maintaining the credibility of the elections. If the media declares a winner in a close contest before all the votes are counted, and the other candidate wins after a complete count, the eventual winner will be perceived as illegitimate and it will make governing more difficult.
All of this should cause the networks and cable channels to rethink their election night strategy and treat vote counting as a dayslong-process, rather than a single-night event.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.