Election night could be chaotic. TV news is bracing for it.


Viewers tuning in to live coverage of the midterm elections Tuesday night will probably find the usual busy graphics of updating vote tallies, the celebratory scenes from far-flung hotel ballrooms and the familiar studio of pundits holding forth on what it all means.

But for the first national election night since the cycle that culminated in an attack on the US Capitol, broadcast networks will have to look far beyond the vote tallies.

There could be live reports on confrontations at local ballot boxes, as well as deep analysis of down-ballot races that never previously made the grade for the national news.

And if a candidate in a close race takes the podium to declare victory? Don’t expect the cameras to turn that way in a hurry.

“I feel an incredible responsibility to get it right,” said CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell, who has been covering elections since 1996. “I think democracy is at stake.”

Inspired by Donald Trump’s baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him, some of his supporters had worked for the last two years to undermine foundations of the democratic system. In Arizona, a group has staked out early-voting sites with guns in hand, in what they assert is a search for fraud. In Georgia, the secretary of state says a pro-Trump attorney gained access to some voting machines and compromised their security. A man under investigation for allegedly trying to do the same in Michigan is also the Republican nominee for attorney general in the state.

Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, most Americans say democracy is under threat. These are the efforts underway to preserve it. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

More than half of all Republicans running for Congress or key statewide offices this year have been denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 election, according to a Washington Post analysis. Some of them have been working with Republican officials in swing states, attempting to disqualify thousands of mail ballots in Democratic-leaning areas.

CBS responded to the explosion of ballot challenges and lawsuits by establishing a dedicated “democracy desk” that will keep tabs on the integrity of the voting process and note challenges as they are made. Both NBC and CNN will be heavily on teams they formed in 2020 in anticipation that Trump might falsely claim victory.

“Our job is to not only tell the audience which candidates won or lost, but we also have to give the audience a sense of whether American democracy is winning or losing on the night, and that is new,” said David Reiter, the CBS executive in charge of special events.

Some fear a repeat of the 2020 “red mirage,” when early election night results showed Trump leading in some areas before vote counts from mail-in ballots and big cities flipped the balance to Joe Biden. Reporters explained at the time that large polling sites take longer to be counted and Democrats favored mail-in voting at the height of the pandemic. But Trump nevertheless claimed that hundreds of thousands of fake votes were fabricated overnight, a lie still widely believed by his supporters.

As election night 2020 morphed into a sprawling, week-long story, political journalists dug into the details of the counting process and scrambled to assess the potential significance of fraud claims. The CNN team of reporters on that story is prepared for a similar workload this week.

“It is pretty clear that there is still going to be a large chunk of mail voting and some states will take a while to count,” said David Chalian, the network’s political director.

Once again, networks are reminding viewers to be patient with the count on Tuesday, noting that it ultimately took four days to call the election for President Biden.

“For the public, the expectations have probably changed,” said Marc Burstein, the executive who oversees election coverage for ABC News. “It’s no longer going to be considered a surprise if we don’t know the outcome by the end of the night or the next morning.” Reiter agreed, “I think it’s going to be a very long night.”

Networks will also be challenged to decide what merits live coverage on election night. In 2020, Trump essentially declared victory in the early-morning hours of Nov. 4, in a speech that was widely reported by mainstream news outlets, albeit with intense skepticism🇧🇷

Several network executives told The Post that they have gamed out an approach for candidates who declare victory early or spread falsehoods. “I probably can’t imagine us carrying live the speech of a candidate saying they won’t if we don’t think they won,” ABC’s Burstein said.

Carrie Budoff Brown, the NBC News executive overseeing midterm elections coverage, said that network journalists will always vet the claims made by candidates. “Our mantra here is that we want to be accurate, not necessarily first,” Budoff Brown said.

One election expert who knows something about the ecstasy and agony of being first is Chris Stirewalt, who was Fox News’ political editor in 2020 when its decision desk that made a quick and decisive call of the state of Arizona for Biden on election night, days before other news networks followed. The call instantly became legendary in the election-analysis community, and although it enraged Trump and many of the network’s core conservative viewers, some election experts say it helped thwart his efforts to claim the election was stolen.

“It was important that Fox made the call and stood by the call,” said Stirewalt, who was laid off by Fox (he says he was fired) in January 2021. “Once you open the door to strategizing about when you are going to make your calls for ratings or viewer experience or anything other than making the calls, then you have profoundly undermined the concept of a decision desk.”

But Stirewalt, who now works for the smaller cable channel NewsNation, also urged his fellow broadcasters to remember that claims of fraud and impropriety are hardly new to 2022, “and not overhype either the results or perceived threats.”

Arnon Mishkin, a consultant who has led Fox’s decision desk since 2008, will be back in his role on Tuesday, the network said.

Chalian said CNN is ready for any scenario that might present itself on Tuesday night. “I find the joy of election night in the surprises,” he said.

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: