In the election business, there are two things you can do to make the media jump for joy.
The first is to give them quick election results, preferably in time for the 10:00 pm news or at the very least tomorrow’s morning edition. This comes with the additional benefit of getting the media safely tucked into bed by midnight.
The second is to screw something up in the election so that they have a ready made and easy to report story for the ensuing weeks.
Suffolk County, New York delivered on both this election.
On election night, they reported that the Democratic candidate for Congress won election with a margin of about 3500 votes. Suffolk County was able to deliver that quick result in part because instead of reporting results from the computer card in each voting machine, they instead opted to have election judges phone in results from polling places.
That expedited process allowed the New York Times to report the next morning:
On Long Island, Representative Timothy Bishop, an eight-term Democratic incumbent, fended off a challenge from Randy Altschuler, a wealthy businessman who invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into the campaign.
The only problem was that somewhere along the line the communication between the election judges at polling places and the Suffolk County Board of Elections didn’t go right. When the results were put into the computer directly from the computer cards from the polling place, instead of a 3500 vote victory for the Democrat, there was a 400 vote margin in favor of the Republican. Oops.
Now, officials with the Board of Elections get to keep talking to the media as well as sending attorneys into court to deal with complaints, lawsuits, etc. from both sides in this battle.
I actually feel a little sorry for the folks in Suffolk County. I know the feeling of trying to produce quick results for the media and candidates. I’ve stuck to my guns and continue to put accuracy far ahead of speed in reporting results. It’s actually caused me some grief with the media, but I’ve yet to run into a voter (except candidates and media) who has complained about the time it takes for us to report results.
I’ve also never had to go on television in the days after the election to explain to the people who elect me and pay my salary why the results I gave on election night were wrong.
Our culture today wants news immediately. In fact, there’s some pretty strong indications that many would rather have wrong news quickly than well researched and documented news later. For elections, where we need public trust in the results, this can be a dangerous temptation. But it’s one that election authorities have to avoid.
In Champaign County we take election results off the computer card from the polling place. We also do a manual audit of ballots cast at the polling place, early voting center, and absentee voting in our office, to make sure that every vote has been uploaded into the computer that reports results. We also do a manual hand count of some ballots in selected precincts after the election.
Waiting a few more hours for results seems unbearable for candidates and is a minor inconvenience for the media. But for voters, having confidence in the accuracy of our election results has a value much higher than anything I can provide to candidates or the media.