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Credit: Ezra Troy

Leaders of the American Political Science Association — including one Penn professor — believe we cannot rely on the media to call the election fairly. But elections and polling experts fiercely argue otherwise. 

In a recent op-ed published by The Guardian, 21 former and living APSA presidents shared concerns about this presidential election being marred by a period of deep polarization and election-related disputes, many which have only been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. 

To combat the chaos, they are urging media networks to show caution when calling the election. 

“We just think that all of us, including the media, share responsibilities to think about how we can conduct ourselves best to try to limit the conflicts that are being bred by the challenges of 2020, a COVID-19 damaged election, and the kinds of allegations of vote fraud and rigged elections that we've never seen before,” Rogers Smith, former APSA president from 2018-2019 and Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, said. 

Their primary concern, he said, is that due to the competitive nature of election coverage, media networks will make different calls of the winner at different times.

John Lapinski, Director of the Elections Unit at NBC News and Penn Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor of Political Science, believes the article is not only an “embarrassment” to APSA, but is also entirely misinformed about how decision desks operate. 

"There was an alarmist tone in that article that I just thought was adding to the insecurity and anxiety that a lot of Americans are feeling about the election, and I thought it was not constructive and I thought it was a little harmful. And I was disappointed in it," Lapinski said, adding that the article gave false information about how election night will work.

The op-ed stated that many media companies are now more partisan and hard-pressed to present fast results, claiming that liberal media outlets may declare early for Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Lapinski and his colleagues fiercely dispute the claim, citing that upper management at NBC News, and his counterparts at other nationwide decisions desks, are solely prioritizing meeting their standards and correctly calling the winner — not being fast. 

At NBC News, Lapinski said the decision desk is completely sequestered from management which allows his team to meet its standards without pressure from anyone else in the office, or any other networks. The team will project an individual race when it is at least 99.5% confident a candidate has won. 

"There is no eagerness. Everybody wants to be able to project the election when we know for sure who has won and when we can. If that's on election night, so be it. If it's not on election night because the race is closer and states haven't counted the vote, so be it. No one is going to jump on a bad call," Lapinski, who is also the director of the Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, said.

The op-ed also disputes dispute media networks' use of play-by-play coverage on the model of past elections, stating that is "unnecessary and, in fact, dangerously uninformative." Again, Lapinski and his colleagues disagree with this.

NBC, like other major media networks, will be recording exit poll data, according to Lapinksi. He said NBC will be talking to 100,000 voters from various states on Election Day to decipher what the American people think and want from their government, and will also be projecting the races as results come in. Decision desks will also be independently analyzing vote results to make sure that there are no anomalies or statistical issues, Lapinski said, adding that if there are issues, the teams will let election officials know.  

"Why is that not informative?" Lapinski asked. "I think actually telling their story, that’s the story of American democracy."

Stephen Pettigrew, senior analyst for the NBC News Decision Desk and director of Data Sciences at PORES, said that "if any of [the authors] had worked on a decision desk or talked to somebody who worked on a decision desk, they would know that we don't do that. We don't call close races off of exit polls."

The exit polls this year will help provide evidence for certain states' races, but Pettigrew stressed that they will not be used to project any swing states such as Pennsylvania or Florida.

"We wait for real votes, and we wait until we have enough real votes to characterize the race," he said.

Delays in verifying mail-in ballot votes this year will slow down the election tally, Associated Press News reported, and legislative rules prevent or give officials little time to process ballots before Election Day in some of the key states this year, namely in Pennsylvania where a close race is expected.

On election night, Pettigrew will be paying a lot of attention to projecting the race in Texas, Florida and North Carolina — three states with a huge number of early in-person voting he believes will be processed quickly by the following morning. 

If Lapinski's team finds that state reported all or almost all their ballots on election night, and a candidate has won decisively according to their statistical projections, NBC will project that outcome. He feels it would "super damaging" to the integrity of the election if they did not call the results of a state that their decision desk team is sure about. 

"It [would seem] somehow that we don't trust the election results," he said. "And we do trust the election results."

For the most part, Lapinski thinks states will do a good job counting votes, but that the process may take longer than normal if states are using a different type of method – like mail-in voting – that they’re not accustomed to using. Election officials are fully prepared to handle the election accurately, he stressed, just not necessarily quickly. And in those instances, his team will not call those races if they can’t get to 270 electoral votes and meet their polling standards.

Surveys show that Republicans are more likely to want to vote in person on election day, and that Democrats are more likely to want to vote early or by mail-in ballots. This partisan difference in voting methodology appears to be why the 2020 election is unusually complex, Fox News Decision Desk director Arnon Mishkin told Business Insider.

More than 42 million Americans — around 30 percent of the total number of votes cast in the 2016 election — have already voted, The New York Times reported

Decision desks have learned since media networks' incorrect projection of the pivotal state of Florida in the 2000 election, one of the events cited in the Guardian op-ed. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, was a part of a commission to evaluate media networks' process in approaching and calling elections following their error when calling Florida. 

According to Jamieson, there are four lessons from covering the 2000 election night: independent journalism has value; projections were then unjustifiably treated as results; beware the presumption created by pre-election surveys; and beware the illusion of convergent data between the networks. There was "a lot of soul searching" media networks after 2000 and many of the commission's recommendations were adopted, Lapinski said, rendering concerns about that election obsolete.

Smith said the APSA presidents also consider it ideal — but probably not feasible — to create a nonpartisan election commission of election analyst experts and representatives across the partisan spectrum that would decide when it's appropriate to call a state or the election. All the media networks would take their cues from this nonpartisan commission, Smith said, so that their calls would arrive at the same time and avoid any problem of conflicting calls and heightened, reactionary disputes.

"That's completely insane," Lapinski says about the suggestion to create a nonpartisan election commission. "The top political scientists in the country sit across all of these decision desks and we're completely unbiased. We're completely unbiased and nonpartisan so it's completely unnecessary and already all the top talent has been taken because they've been all hired by the networks and cables that you'd basically be going to the B-team if you tried to form that committee." 

Another suggestion the APSA presidents made, Smith said, is that the media adopt a rule for themselves to not call results until the estimated vote difference between the two major candidates is greater than the estimated number of outstanding votes. 

"That's a ridiculous idea, that's never happened before," Lapinksi rebutted. "No one's gonna wait until the results are certified. We do very rigorous analysis to make sure that it's not possible for the second place candidate to overtake the first place candidate." In close races, the desks do an "end-of-the-night" calculation to make sure there is not enough vote that could flip the results, he said. 

Pettigrew added that most networks project things right around the same time because they look at the same sets of data. 

According to Lapinski, many U.S. news networks and digital sites such as Politico and FiveThirtyEight were not willing to publish the op-ed and the nation's top political scientists were likewise disappointed in the article. 

But Victor Pickard, Annenberg Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy and co-director of the Media, Inequality and Change Center, agreed with the op-ed authors in their reasoning of why Americans should be concerned about the election and their advice on how media outlets should operate. 

"It's important that they do not create confusion and they do not set into motion particular assumptions or sort-of set the narrative that one candidate has won," Pickhard said, adding he wouldn't be concerned about the networks not coordinating together about their announcements. Most of the obvious concerns this time, he believes, are President Donald Trump's attempts to question the legitimacy of any election results that are not in his favor. 

"From claiming widespread voter fraud and various, pretty much out in the open voter suppression efforts, there's a lot being done to thwart the Democratic potential of this election," Pickard, who prefaced he does not have firsthand knowledge of how decision desks work, said. "And so, I think that just raises the stakes and really puts more pressure on these media outlets to really try to serve democracy."

Like Pickard, Smith mentioned Trump's previous refusal to accept the election result and increases in mail-in voting as unprecedented obstacles in calling the election results. Smith added that polling data suggests the media and other traditionally authoritative institutions have lost credibility with much of the public, leading people to often judge information by who says it rather than the contents of the information.

"These are just unfortunate political realities today that create challenges for trying to make sure that complicated and uncertain news isn't processed in ways that inflame partisan divides," Smith said.

But Lapinski and Pettigrew, along with their colleagues at the NBC Decision Desk, believe the article's suggestions are unnecessary and naive. 

"Basically what [APSA presidents] are trying to say is they want to make sure that we call these races right," Lapinski said. "We are on the same page there. We absolutely have to get these races right. So that's what they wanted to do. The thing is that we know how to do that better than them."

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