Speed and American elections

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Science  16 Oct 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6514, pp. 267
DOI: 10.1126/science.abf1768

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“As you love your country, fly to your polls,” the Gazette of the United States urged voters in 1800, in a presidential election that pitted Thomas Jefferson against John Adams. But voters hardly raced to the polls that year: Balloting began in March and ended in November and the winner was declared only weeks before inauguration. In the centuries since, both voting and counting in the United States have gotten faster, if not always more fair, and this year, the communication of results long before they can possibly be known threatens to undermine not only the election but democracy itself.

Republicans have raised alarms about old-fashioned, well-regulated technologies: the paper ballot and the post office. But the real danger this election comes from new-fangled, unregulated social media companies. “What's the Plan if Trump Tweets that He's Won Re-election?” The New York Times asked last month. Twitter plans to slow down communications on its platform beginning 20 October. That may be too little, too late.

The push for speed came, first, from newspapers. In 1852, The New York Times promised that a new technology of communication, the telegraph, would “enable the Press of the entire country to announce the result of the national election on the morning after the closing of the polls.” But as late as 1896, newspapers were still using homing pigeons to collect returns although, by 1904, electricity allowed big-city newspapers headquartered in tall buildings to speed results to the public by way of lights that could be seen for miles (that's what's meant by a “news flash”): Steady light to the west meant a Democratic victory; steady light to the east a Republican one.

The emergence of radio in the 1920s and modern polling in the 1930s made election reporting more frantic and, equally, more prone to error. In 1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune famously went to press with the dead-wrong headline, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. But the real turn came in 1952 when CBS Television News brought in a UNIVAC computer to predict the outcome of the contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. With the introduction of “giant electronic brains” into election-night television coverage, Americans came to expect to learn of the outcome of a presidential election before turning in for the night.

In 1960, all three television networks used computers to make projections in the contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, which proved to be one of the closest elections in American history. On CBS, an IBM 7090 predicted a Kennedy victory at 8:12 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, while polls remained open in much of the country. Republicans pushed for a recount; Nixon decided to concede. Afterward, IBM published a promotional brochure called “The Fastest Reported Election,” boasting, “For waiting millions on election night, the computer cut down the time of waiting.” Newspapers soon began commissioning computers, too. In 1962, The New York Times hired the Simulmatics Corporation, a pioneering predictive analytics company. Simulmatics promised that it could help the newspaper report the results of the mid-term elections in “real time,” a term that had been coined by the U.S. Department of Defense, at the height of the Cold War, to explain how computers predicted, by way of simulation, the path and velocity of missiles.

Ballots aren't bombs. Honestly, what's the hurry? Haste is not in the public interest. It has also not infrequently undermined the democratic process. In 1980, NBC Television News called Ronald Reagan the presidential winner at 8:15 p.m. At 10 p.m., Jimmy Carter conceded. Polls hadn't closed yet in the West, and down-ticket Democrats who lost their races blamed Carter. But, really, NBC was to blame. As a consequence, television networks adopted new rules, barring the calling of elections before the polls close. In 2000, every television network, relying on computer projections, called the presidential election for George W. Bush over Al Gore, leading Gore to concede, prematurely. Again, television networks established new rules.

Media companies fix their mistakes. Journalists work in the public interest. “We are not a media company,” Mark Zuckerberg insisted after the 2016 election, deflecting blame. For 2020, Facebook has established a Voting Information Center; one of its purposes, Zuckerberg says, is “to prepare people for the possibility that it may take a while to get official results.” That might work. Or, it might not. Either way, after the 3 November election, control of the nation's election reporting needs to be wrested out of Zuckerberg's clutches and returned to journalists.

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