I. PRAISE WHERE PRAISE IS DUE
Great in-depth political reportage is not easy — and it is a hard thing for any journalist to write compellingly about the quotidian mechanisms of democracy, as opposed to the comparatively simpler narrative about candidates winning and losing.
And when election experts assert that (Donald Trump’s tweets notwithstanding), there is no way for the presidential election to be rigged with fake votes, voter impersonation, people voting as dead voters, illegal voters, etc., the technical reasons for those assertions are sometimes glossed (or glazed, as in glazed eyes) over.
Discussions of ballot security protocols, chain-of-custody documents, seal registers, and other voting safeguards are usually not what one would think of as making for compelling television journalism topics, which is a shame.
To the extent that the media fails to educate voters about how and why elections are secure, voter ignorance about election security can make voters vulnerable to fear-mongering.
Inasmuch as television news reporting is often negatively (and sometimes unfairly!) perceived as “shallow” and insubstantial, I think it’s important to call television news stations out for praise when they do a great job.
On October 20, 2016 (well before the beginning of the early voting period), KTRE TV (the ABC affiliate in Nacogdoches, Texas) ran a story by Thomas Hoce that effectively rebutted the “rigged election” falsehood with specific technical information supplied by interviews with Connie Brown, the Angelina County Elections Administrator, and Todd Stallings of the Nacogdoches County Elections office. My only editorial suggestion would be that titling the story as “East Texas election officials talk possibility of election rigging” was a little misleading and unfair.
I would have gone with something more like, “East Texas election officials debunk possibility of election rigging.”
Among other things, Mr. Stallings mentioned that in his county [and, I, the Texas Election Law Blogger, will add, and as is standard practice across Texas and the nation],
- the voting systems are not networked or connected to the internet, that
- the ballot tabulators are audited for accuracy before and after the ballot tabulations are run,
- that the State demands a “test” partial manual recount of ballots to test against the possibility of error,
- that the voting systems and tabulating equipment are secured with tamper-resistant seals, and
- that audit logs are maintained for each instance in which the election records are accessed.
On the one hand, nothing that Mr. Stallings said was particularly stunning or noteworthy —elections always produce a prodigious amount of redundant public security records and proof of veracity as part of the statutorily required audit trail.
But (outside of election workers and a few interested officials and academics) journalists rarely include a description of this audit trail as part of a routine dinnertime local television news story about the election. So kudos to KTRE and Thomas Hoce for having aired some of the procedural reasons why the election won’t be—in fact, can’t be—”rigged.”
II. PLAYING ON VOTER FEARS
And now for some criticism. Whereas one TV station in a comparatively small East Texas market did an admirable brief story quelling election fears, TV stations in the much larger Austin market (FOX7 News Austin , KEYE, and KVUE) ran stories on October 19th that might have exacerbated voter anxieties unnecessarily.
Two years ago, a woman named Laura Pressley lost a hard-fought bid to be elected to a seat on the Austin city council; she subsequently filed an election contest asserting that the way in which electronic votes were preserved and tabulated after the election materially affected the outcome of the election.
Her argument was that because early votes cast on electronic machines were not reproduced in hard copy prior to Election Day, they could not be manually recounted and compared against a pre-Election Day partial tally. (The candidate made this assertion because she had done relatively well in early voting, but lost based on Election Day turnout, and believed that the divergent trends suggested irregularity.)
Given that Pressley’s contesting of the 2014 election results had been dismissed by the trial court for lack of evidence, one might wonder what change of circumstance made her story newsworthy on October 19 of this year, when her allegations were run under the headline, “Texas election integrity questioned.”
The implication from the story is that the State of Texas is doing something suspicious by granting waivers to some counties that release those counties from the obligation to do mandatory partial manual counts of optical scan ballots.
It’s an odd irrelevancy, given that
- (1) Laura Pressley’s 2014 election didn’t have any optical-scan ballots, and so the State waiver she describes is unconnected to her election contest; and
- (2) the State’s waiver is a specific response to the way in which certain brands of optical scanners of marked paper ballots (mechanically similar to the scanners used to tabulate multiple-choice tests) accumulate and preserve precinct-by-precinct early voting and Election Day vote totals.
A better headline for this story could have been, “Two years later, losing candidate still thinks she shouldn’t have lost.”
Of the three versions of Ms. Pressley’s “Election Integrity Story” that ran in the Austin market, the KVUE version contained the most explanatory context, including a rebuttal and criticism of alarmist talk about election fraud, and a reminder that widespread fears of election “rigging” are unfounded. The FOX7 version of the story was the shortest and least critical of its source, and omitted key information that would have placed Ms. Pressley’s complaints in context.
III. ARE ELECTION PROCEDURES TOO BORING TO MAKE GOOD NEWS?
Eh … I’m biased against saying that election procedures are “boring.” TV news producers face tremendous time limitations when trying to explain a complicated story, and election law is complicated; there’s no getting around that.
But elections are exciting, and election security should (or could) be described in a compelling way. And I think there’s a public benefit to be gained from airing news stories that give election administration a wider audience.