Good TV Demands Results on Election Night, But that’s Bad for Democracy

tags: media, journalism, 2020 Election

Kathryn Cramer Brownell, an editor at Made by History, is associate professor of history at Purdue University and author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life.


On Tuesday, millions of Americans will gather around their TV screens and participate in an American ritual: watching election returns.

While President Trump has been insisting that “it would be very, very proper and very nice if a winner was declared on Nov. 3” and categorizing delays in counting as “totally inappropriate,” he is wrong. At times, it has taken weeks, even months, to find out who won the presidency. While election night itself has long been about political entertainment, advancements in media, technology and statistical analysis have dramatically heightened expectations for instant results. This transformation of election night into a show that culminates with a clear winner has not always been good for democracy, and such entertainment demands create problems for 2020, when counting every vote is essential.

During the 19th century, political parties controlled almost all aspects of the Election Day experience. Newspapers were partisan outlets, and even printed the ballots that citizens would cast. Citizens proudly marched in torch-lit parades to cast their ballot, voted under the watchful eye of partisan leaders, and then looked for “election night rockets” that might communicate to voters the local tally.

This changed at the turn of the 20th century, as political reforms — notably the rise of more standardized voting procedures and the secret ballot — began to limit the power of political parties to manipulate the voting process. Newspapers also underwent a dramatic change as they moved away from partisan coffers for support and toward an advertiser-based model dependent on circulation — which demanded cultivating public trust. Election reporting became a way to celebrate new professional ideals of objectivity, and newspapers began to emphasize the “science” of election returns. They hired mathematical experts to help with calculations and cultivated public fascination with the process of reporting results.

In 1952, the connection between journalism, technological innovation and data processing was vividly on display when the CBS Election Evening television show featured a huge computer, UNIVAC, which engaged in a “battle of the brains” with NBC’s computer Monrobot. The technological bells and whistles didn’t just entertain audiences. They also boosted the prestige and political importance of corporate broadcasting companies and the highly profitable national network affiliation system on which they depended.

By 1976, with electoral reforms having firmly ended the era of backroom party politics, the networks worked with newspapers to develop polling operations that controversially allowed them to predict, not just report, ballot box returns.


Read entire article at Made by History at The Washington Post

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