[Image courtesy of Alysoun McLaughlin]
Alysoun McLaughlin, my friend and former Pew colleague who’s now living the election geek dream full-time in Montgomery County, MD, recently shared some private thoughts about the recent focus on Virginia’s election canvass that I thought would make an excellent guest blog post. Fortunately, she agreed – here it is … Thanks, Alysoun!
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”:
+ relating to an authority or public body and its duties, actions, and responsibilities –
“the governor’s official engagements”
+ employed by an authority or public body in a position of authority or trust –
“an official spokesman”
+ emanating from or attributable to a person in office; properly authorized –
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.
We need to tell the rest of the story – from election night through the canvass and certification – before the election, even if no one is listening. Because if the process becomes the story on election night, it’s too late to write FAQs.
If we have armed the commentariat with information on the work that lies ahead, at least we have a fighting chance of surviving the ten-hour news cycle when a controversy erupts. But if all our website shows is a bunch of numbers that add up to 100%, we’re facing a long week of explaining the part we left out.
And while a close election brings challenges, it also brings opportunities not to waste a crisis.
Teaching moments don’t come along every day. Collaborating with news reporters and engaging in social media to tell the story of the canvass process can be a fantastic opportunity for voter outreach, to raise awareness about what it takes to run an election and showcase the work that we do and that we want voters to better understand. We don’t have to look incompetent.
Brian Schoeneman, Secretary of the Electoral Board in Fairfax County, Virginia, showed us all how it’s done earlier this month when he took to twitter to address concerns about a statewide contest for Attorney General that was too close to call.
For any election administrator trying to figure out how to make effective use of social media, it is worth spending some time going back through his more than 400 tweets since Election Day. Rather than quietly investigating while rumors grew, Schoeneman engaged directly with those who were tweeting about numbers that didn’t seem to add up:
Over the next week, Schoeneman held a constant social media press conference, explaining over and over again the point of the canvass…
…and offering a window into it, cutting through the rumor and speculation to showcase the job of the Electoral Board …
…answering questions as they arose…
…and sharing links quickly to official statements requiring more than a 140-character tweet.
Why? In his own words:
The acclaim he has earned shows that it is, in fact, possible to survive the spotlight of a close election:
An election is headed into a recount, and the ballot counters are earning praise for their hard work, dedication and integrity.
Maybe people are listening.
Maybe we can do a better job of explaining what we do.
Maybe it’s time to ditch the self-perpetuating siege mentality of the Election Officials’ Prayer.