Three-and-a-half days. It seems a lot longer than that, but that's how long it took from the time polls closed on the West Coast to the time Pennsylvania was finally declared won by Joe Biden, giving the former Vice President more than the 270 electoral votes needed to become the 46th President of the United States. We want information instantaneously in this information age, but with more people voting, it takes more time to count ballots. It's a new reality that has actually been in effect for some time now, at least for some of us.
Sitting around Tuesday night, watching and waiting for the returns to start trickling in, I realized something. I believe this is the first time since 1992 that I have not covered an election, although on a local level. I was at the Nevada County Elections office four years ago when Donald Trump became President, and in various studios or offices when George W. Bush and Barack Obama won their races. Not thinking this was going to stretch on forever, I was kind of looking forward to just turning on the TV and watching the network bigwigs do their jobs. One voice, though, kept coming into my head as the night grew later and later.
Greg Diaz is the Clerk-Recorder of Nevada County (Grass Valley, Nevada City, and Truckee, California), and warned for the last several election cycles that returns would be slow to come in. In 2016, California passed the Voters Choice Act. Although it wasn't used for the general election four years ago, Nevada County was one of five counties to first implement it. The VCA is essentially what a lot of states are doing now. Everyone is sent a mail-in ballot, return postage is paid, drop boxes are set up around the county, and vote centers are open, some as early as 11 days before the election, for anyone who has questions or wants to vote in person. It also allows ballots to come back after Election Day, even by mail, as long as the ballots are postmarked on or before Election Day and received by the following Friday, three days later. With some minor differences, several states have done this in 2020, mostly for coronavirus reasons. Some states implemented these rules for the first time, which created some of the unusual reporting we saw in places like Pennsylvania, Georgia, and others.
In Nevada County, there were several elections in 2018 and 2019. There was the usual primary and general, but also a couple of special elections to fill vacancies, and a runoff or two. In March of 2018, only six votes separated the winner of a Nevada City City Council race and the top runner-up on Election Night. Diaz originally said there would be no updated vote total for several days, but changed his mind when the count became so close. Updates were provided nearly daily, and in the end, the returns were reversed. The trailing candidate won the seat on the council when the final vote was counted. The leading vote-getter after election night did not demand a recount, and graciously conceded the election. Pestering Diaz' office for updates on a day-to-day basis was standard during elections, with Diaz saying they'd be finished soon, and that the Voters Choice Act allows them to certify final results even earlier than before. That wasn't much help for reporters, though.
If you take that tale (except for the concession and the results changing) and multiply it by several million, you get this election in 2020. With several states showing close races, the networks wouldn't make a projection. Some states continued to count votes all night, and some didn't. Some would give updates often, and others would only report once or twice a day. At first, some state elections officials really didn't care about the media, giving out vote totals, or expediency. Their job is to count the votes as accurately as they can, and if we have to wait, so be it. More ballots to count than ever before, and only so many people to do the counting.
Many states, though, didn't really have time to think the process through. For people who voted early, the idea in their heads was that the earlier the vote was cast, the earlier the ballot would be counted. Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania and other places, the opposite was true. In California, your ballot can't be counted until the polls close, even if you vote early. However, it can be opened, and scanned for irregularities (no signature, improper address, damaged ballot, etc.). As soon as 8pm hits, a button can be pushed, and the count can begin. Other states didn't even allow the envelopes to be opened until the polls closed, and that drags the process on.
Add to the confusion, although it doesn't really address the counting of the votes, is the fact that the current president told his supporters not to vote by mail. Pennsylvania and Georgia counted Election Day votes first, and early voters later. Because of that, Donald Trump built a big lead, and then watched it slip away. Had the process been reversed, Trump would have been pummeled in the early numbers, only to mount a huge comeback, but fall short. The numbers still would have been the same. If you don't understand the process, it would be easy to wonder why big early leads would slip away in several places. Perhaps that will be addressed next time.
Flipping around the dial a lot on Tuesday, all of the networks were really saying the same thing. NBC's Chuck Todd, for example, reported when Trump had a huge lead in Georgia, that some computer models had the race finishing at about a tenth of a point. If you stayed up really late, Georgia was a statistical dead heat by the time you went to bed.
The exercise we have been put through this past week appears to be the new normal in elections. We certainly don't expect a pandemic in 2024, but early voting and extended return deadlines are likely here to stay in most states. However, there's one thing that can be done, and in the countless interviews we heard over about 90 hours, it was a question that was never asked. We heard several state and county officials from all over the country either say or imply that reporting results seems to take time away from people doing the counting. Why?
It's amazing to me that they haven't come up with a machine that not only tabulates votes, but either automatically uploads the data to a computer, which then updates the website, or at least can provide it for one person to do the uploading rather easily. I'm not an engineer, but it doesn't seem difficult. You've seen those coin machines that can count change and display how much you have. It seems like the same thing. I can see a baseball player's batting average automatically updated the minute his time at bat is over. Heck, I can even water my front lawn using an app on my phone. It's got to be doable.
Remember a couple of things, though. This election was extremely close, and many states were using vote by mail for the first time. Even if the technology doesn't improve drastically in the next four years, and you know it will, what we went through last week seems like a worst-case scenario when it comes to counting votes. Mr. Diaz is right. It takes time to count all of those ballots, and all elections officials are concentrating on is accuracy. Us reporters are right too, though. We want to know what's going on, and we want to know now.
California dreaming: For those of you wishing California played a larger role in the electoral process, it has. Yes, the state's 55 electoral votes were called for Biden one minute after the polls closed, but Golden State residents elected the former Vice President directly. The networks didn't report this, but when Pennsylvania was finally called for Biden, his nationwide lead in the popular vote was approximately 4.4 million votes. In California alone, it's currently about 4.5 million.
Biden vs. football: Biden's victory speech with Kamala Harris Saturday night created some scrambling for a couple of television networks because of college football. ABC had the easier decision, moving the Stanford-Oregon game to ESPN News at precisely 5pm PT, but NBC was in a bigger pickle. The network had devoted hours of election coverage, but also paid a fortune to broadcast Notre Dame football, and the Fighting Irish game against Clemson was the biggest game of the college football season to date. NBC carried the game up to the moment Biden was ready to speak (almost 5:30), then switched the game to USA Network. NBC went back to the game as soon as Biden was done, cutting off the crowd celebration and the fireworks show.
It wasn't that bad: In a mid-week guest segment on MSNBC, noted Democratic strategist James Carville commented on the seemingly long wait to get the final results. “Put the razor blades and the Ambien back in the medicine cabinet”, he said. “We're gonna be fine.”
I had to watch 'Jeopardy!” tonight after news broke this morning of the passing of Alex Trebek. His final shows will air later this year, but Trebek was an evening standard for 36 years. There's a great article on mlb.com outlining what a great sports fan he was (Dodgers season ticket holder), complete with clips from sports categories on the show. Tonight's show began with a message from the producer, choking back tears, announcing that the final 35 episodes, which just finished taping about two weeks ago, will air in accordance with Trebek's wishes. Trebek died of pancreatic cancer. He was 80.