Reporting the US election: 'No one quite knows when it will end. Or how'

The editor of the Guardian US on what it’s like to cover an atypical election with many possible outcomes

I wonder how many people remember John Delaney? The former congressman became the first Democrat to announce that he would challenge Donald Trump for the presidency. He did so on 28 July 2017, just six months after Trump took office, demonstrating that these days US presidential races are marathons that last years.

Under normal circumstances, that marathon would end at around midnight on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November of the election year, ie tomorrow. Typically, political reporters plan their holidays for the second or third weeks of November.

But not this year. Because no one quite knows when this election will end. Or how.

Last week I had a discussion with one of our editors. They wanted to know if we had any bullet-proof vests, since the reporter covering events in the crucial swing state of Michigan – birthplace of the US militia movement – wanted to prepare for any possible outcome. And that included rightwing paramilitaries protesting the electoral result.

A bullet-proof vest to cover elections in the US? Really? Yes, really. Those same paramilitaries appeared on the steps of the Michigan state capitol in May to protest the governor’s lockdown restrictions. A month earlier Donald Trump had railed against the Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders and tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN”. And last month the FBI arrested more than a dozen people who were accused of plotting to kidnap the Michigan governor and overthrow the state government.

That is a measure of the divisions that are roiling the country and an indication of the toxic atmosphere in which the election is taking place. Bearing that in mind, last week I sent a note to all our correspondents to advise caution while reporting the aftermath of a result or a protracted and disputed election outcome. Reporters crisscrossing the country for the last few months have observed a significant increase in hostility toward the media since 2016. The president has done little to calm tensions with routine attacks on the media, so we asked all our reporters to be extra vigilant in the hours and days after polls close.

It’s that sort of election.

Early voters queue up at Temple Terrace Public Library in Tampa, Florida, on 31 October.
Early voters queue up at Temple Terrace Public Library in Tampa, Florida, on 31 October. Photograph: Peter Foley/EPA

But it’s not just paramilitaries and threats of violence which are causing us to prepare differently for this election. Ordinarily we would expect an election result – at the latest – in the early hours of Wednesday morning. That could still happen, assuming a very decisive victory for either party. But, as almost everyone now knows, this election result may not be known for days, or even weeks, such is the number of people voting by mail.

Many of those mail-in votes will not start to be counted until Wednesday morning and they could take days, possibly weeks, to be processed and counted. In the event of a landslide we may still have a winner announced shortly after polls close, but in the event of a tight election decided by a small number of votes in a tiny number of swing states it could take days or weeks for all the votes to be tallied.

In the absence of a result misinformation and rumour are likely to abound. It will be critical for news organisations to step into that void in the early hours of Wednesday to explain exactly what is happening. As Lawrence Douglas, Guardian columnist and professor of law at Amherst College in Massachusetts, told the Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast: “News organisations need to remind the American people that if they cannot make a prediction, and cannot declare a winner, that that is not an example of a system malfunctioning, it simply is a system properly functioning in the time of a pandemic”.

Part of being able to explain what is happening is ensuring that we are in as many places as possible to report from the ground. Pennsylvania is emerging as a key swing state where a litigated election is most likely and we have decided we will need two reporters there. Scranton, Pennsylvania, is Joe Biden’s birthplace, and so worthy of a visit. We’ll also be in Michigan and Wisconsin – the latter another key state where election litigation has already reached the supreme court. Our reporters are fanning out to Iowa, Florida, Ohio, Arizona (a new crucial bellwether state), Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and major cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and DC.

Our teams in New York and Oakland will steer coverage throughout the day and night with a 24-hour editing and reporting rota ensuring continuous coverage around the clock. We will be in near-constant contact with our colleagues in London, who will be working out how to cover the story in the newspaper and assisting with reporting support. Our editors and reporters will be communicating with our daily podcast Today in Focus through the night in order to help prepare a special election night edition for the next morning. Meanwhile a small team in Florida will be recording the final episode of our election series Anywhere But Washington.

Typically this would all play out in a crowded newsroom with multiple screens showing latest TV coverage. But not this time. We have been working remotely since March and our offices in downtown New York, Oakland and DC will be eerily quiet as we use a mix of instant messaging apps to communicate with each other.

Election night – or week or, indeed, month – will be the culmination of months of planning. The visuals department in London started work on our election night results tracker in the spring and editors Enjoli Liston and Mark Oliver in New York have spent endless hours detailing how we might cover – and from where – the various scenarios that could play out: a Trump victory, a Biden win or a disputed election mired in endless litigation. All eventualities demand a huge amount of preparation – not just from our reporting and editing team but also our opinion desk who will have lined up a host of writers ready and willing to opine on the outcome.

There will be some long days and short nights this week, depending on how this election plays out. One scenario is that the president may announce – in the early hours of Wednesday – that he is the rightful “winner” based on a tally of in-person voting (which will be counted first and likely to skew Republican) and without waiting for votes-by-mail to be counted. Another possibility is that teams of expensive lawyers litigate and counter-litigate the result in many swing states where the outcome could hinge on a tiny percentage of votes cast. That could take weeks.

When John Delaney announced his failed bid in a Washington Post op-ed in 2017 he said: “It is time for us to rise above our broken politics.” No one much listened. (Indeed, Delaney dropped out in January this year.) At some point on or after 3 November, we may find out if America is ready to heal, or if it is about to break apart a little more.


John Mulholland US editor

The GuardianTramp

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