Who decides when an election is over?
The media don’t determine the winner, and President Trump has the right not to concede. But there are after-effects. Enter America’s next great civics lesson.
When the presidential race was “called” last Saturday for former Vice President Joe Biden, I was sitting with a few other reporters in an Italian restaurant near the Trump National Golf Club in northern Virginia. We, the White House “press pool,” weren’t invited to accompany President Donald Trump into his club. But when it came time to leave, we got to see what he saw from inside the motorcade – crowds of Biden and Trump supporters, holding signs, waving flags, making noise.
Scenes like this played out around the country, all based on the announcements of news media “decision desks” that call elections. But President Trump has not conceded the race, nor has his administration “ascertained” that Mr. Biden is the “apparent successful candidate.” Such a legal designation has existed since 1963 to help with an orderly transition, as I wrote Tuesday.
Here’s the issue: The election, technically, isn’t over – as many readers have pointed out. Votes are still being counted, court challenges are in progress, most states have yet to certify results, and the Electoral College hasn’t met. That happens Dec. 14.
Mr. Trump has the right not to concede the election. But he isn’t just sitting idly by, waiting for final results. He’s actively promoting, via social media, the idea that the election was stolen. Twitter labels his tweets “disputed,” but his message is still breaking through. A Politico/Morning Consult poll taken Nov. 6-9 found that 70% of Republicans don’t believe the election was “free and fair.” To many Americans, the president’s behavior poses a threat to democracy.
The challenge for the mainstream media, repeatedly dubbed “fake news,” is profound. This year, media outlets have gone out of their way to explain how they declare election winners, as with this Associated Press article. The people who work at decision desks are green-eyeshade data scientists committed to getting it right, not partisans projecting a desired outcome.
In the meantime, before the 2020 election fully resolves, here’s some advice from my old friend Bob Carolla, a former aide to retired Democratic Sen. George Mitchell of Maine.
“If I learned anything from George Mitchell as a lawyer and legislator,” it’s this, Mr. Carolla writes in an email. “If a person is being reasonable, be reasonable and flexible. If they are unreasonable but within their rights, be patient but firm and keep advancing steadily.”
He concludes: We are passing through a “Great American Civics Lesson.”
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