It could be a long election night

Early Returns
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Kudos to the NBC News political team for a very good item about counting ballots in November's elections. As the team explains, it's going to take a week or more to get a complete vote tally this year. That's simply the system that has evolved, and it is now even more complicated thanks to an expected surge in absentee voting during the pandemic. As NBC puts it, we're likely to have "Election Week" rather than "Election Night."

This is exactly the kind of media coverage that's needed to educate voters. We've already seen one example of what not to do during this primary season, when a columnist wrote an analysis of the Pennsylvania vote that turned out to be wrong when more ballots were counted. State officials had put out word in advance that it would take a while, and those covering elections need to be aware of such things and help set public expectations. 

As I've said before, the TV networks already know how to do this. All of the "magic board" analysis during Election Night is based on an understanding that different returns get counted at different times, and that partial returns need to be discussed in context. Accounting for late-counted absentee votes is different in detail, but identical in principle. 

The one thing NBC doesn't mention is that in most slow-count states, the normal pattern is for Democratic votes to come in late. There's nothing nefarious about this; it's just that different groups vote in different ways and in many states Democrats tend to vote late and by mail, meaning that their votes are often underestimated on Election Night. Arizona and Pennsylvania usually exhibit this pattern. Both could easily show a small Republican lead after the initial count that experts know will disappear, and it would boost confidence in the process if more people knew that ahead of time.

This is all fairly new, and hard to get right. ABC News, for instance, did a less successful job in a story about the Pennsylvania primary. It got many of the facts of the slow count right, but doesn't adequately explain that this is no cause for alarm — and that everyone should expect a similar outcome in November. 

One more thing: Another way that news outlets can mislead viewers on Election Night is by reporting the percentage of precincts that've been counted. This was always a dubious practice — precincts vary in size — but it amounts to misinformation in the age of vote-by-mail. As election-law maven Rick Hasen points out, it isn't helpful when viewers are told that 100% of precincts are in but in fact many votes remain to be counted. 

Administering the 2020 election would be a challenge even if everyone acted in good faith. It's worse because some jurisdictions are trying to make voting hard or botching things through poor planning (see Tuesday's primaries in Georgia and Nevada). Inaccurate coverage from the media won't help. With any luck, news outlets will set expectations about slow — and accurate — counts, well before November.

1. Julia Azari on 2020 and historical precedents.

2. Mira Rapp-Hooper at the Monkey Cage on withdrawing U.S. troops from Germany.

3. Nate Cohn on the recent presidential-election polling.

4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Therese Raphael on protests in the U.K.

5. Also here at Bloomberg Opinion: Peter Orszag on the urgent need for more economic stimulus

6. And David Petraeus calls for removing the names of Confederates from U.S. Army bases. Yup. There are some hard calls when it comes to who we should honor, but this isn't one of them. 

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