THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
American election nights can be fun, fast and frantic. But with a divided electorate, a growing number of mail-in ballots and early voters, plus a President unafraid of causing controversy, has the way the US reports election results become too much of a spectacle?
At roughly 2am Eastern Time, President Donald Trump entered the East Room of the White House and essentially declared victory, saying “Frankly, we did win this election”, and calling on the Supreme Court to stop vote counting. At the time of Trump’s statement, ballots were still being counted in key battleground states including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and North Carolina.
Trump had notable leads in many of these states at the time of his remarks, some of which have since been whittled back as more mail-in ballots are counted. Experts have identified a notable lean towards Democrats in terms of mail-in ballots, meaning that the order in which votes are counted and reported is having more of an influence on the overall electoral college picture this year than usual.
The higher number of mail-in ballots and early votes, primarily caused by the coronavirus pandemic, has had a big impact on reporting. Trends have shown that more Democrats tended to vote early or by mail, while more Republicans voted in person. These votes were processed differently state by state, which lead to some early wild speculation that states like Ohio could break for the Democrats, although as the percentage of counted votes increased, it was clear that Ohio's early reporting of mail-in ballots skewed the initial results in favor of the Democrats.
For seasoned election watchers, the live result system is an exciting way to spend election night, but last night, this unpredictable reporting method led to Trump’s dubious early victory statement, and his unprecedented call for the Supreme Court to stop counting votes. Speaking to CNN, veteran Republican lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg described the move as a disservice to American men and women, while other commentators roundly criticised the speech.
By way of comparison, coverage of UK general election counts tends to be much more analytical. There’s the initial excitement of the exit poll, followed by considered analysis of how individual swings are affecting different constituencies, regions and then the national picture. In the UK, only final counts are announced, providing a clearer ongoing picture of results and a less changeable state of play.
As the election count continues to play out, a clearer picture will present itself, but Trump’s 2am speech was the result of a system that feels better suited to entertainment than to accurate reporting. Whether you’re enjoying this year’s election result coverage or not is likely to depend on which candidate you’re backing. And that’s the point – in a more divided America, are the twists and turns of election night really that entertaining with what’s at stake?
For the record, I think American election nights are great to watch, especially for those of us who want to stay up, analyse the weird results, celebrate the surprises, and generally drink up democracy in action. But with most pundits roundly criticising Trump’s 2am victory speech speech from the White House, it’s worth asking, is the entertainment still worth it?