Letter from the Editor | How we plan to handle election night

If this year has taught journalists anything, it’s that we can’t predict the future. From the Iowa caucuses to the pandemic, we have had to learn to live with uncertainty. The Daily Iowan is preparing for a results process where it might not be possible to call the winners on Tuesday night. We ask our readers to wait and be ready with us.


Jenna Galligan

The Daily Iowan is seen on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Sarah Watson, Executive editor

Planning election night for a news organization means months of meetings, spreadsheets, and organized chaos to publish and put out accurate information on the night the polls close, and in the days to follow.

Iowans have faced a lot of uncertainty, grief, hardship – and hopefully, at times, joy – in the months leading up to this election. Iowa began the process years earlier with a whopping 25+ Democratic hopefuls seeking to unseat the U.S. president, and in the final few months a pandemic, job losses, and a racial-justice reckoning have stretched the state thin.

This year, with several battleground states apprehensive that result totals may not be available for days, it’s possible we won’t know who wins the White House on Nov. 3, or even in the days to follow.

And that doesn’t mean there’s a problem with voting, or evidence of voter fraud. A high percentage of mail-in votes lengthens the process because volunteers must first open envelopes before tabulating ballots. Media organizations, including The Daily Iowan, are taking extra care to report winners once we’re sure results are clear.

In Iowa, election officials are confident that Iowa’s statewide races and presidential tallies will be reported quickly Nov. 3. That’s in part thanks to a rule change which allowed auditors and teams of volunteers to start opening absentee ballot envelopes on Saturday, four days ahead of the election. Travis Weipert, Johnson County auditor, told the DI earlier this week that this would speed along the process, as opening envelopes takes longer than the actual tabulating of results.

Other states however, including battleground states, say they won’t have all the ballots tabulated on election night — possibly delaying the final electoral vote wins.

Michigan expects to have its unofficial results by Nov. 6, and possibly earlier. Pennsylvania can’t open ballot envelopes until Election Day, despite asking the state Legislature for more time. The top election official in the Keystone State expects an initial tally to be reported days later or by the weekend.

But we’ve almost never had “official” results on the day of the election.

Our politics coach Lyle Muller drills into reporters he trains that the vote totals on election night are always “unofficial results” until the official vote canvas, which in Iowa takes place 27 days after Election Day.

And the Associated Press called the 2016 election at 2:26 a.m. the day after Election Day.

For the Hawkeye State, waiting for a winner in politics isn’t new. The 2020 Democratic caucuses in February – administered by the Iowa Democratic Party – ended without a clear winner for weeks after a botched reporting system and technical difficulties delayed the results.

The Daily Iowan’s banner headline that day read IOWA CAUCUS CHAOS to appropriately capture uncertainty after national and local media left Iowa without the state’s anticipated results.

It should be noted, too, that Iowa’s primary elections – run by the Secretary of State’s Office, not the party – went off without a hitch.

But nationwide, it’s not clear whether we will know who our next president will be on election night. This year, we want readers to be prepared for that possibility.

Follow our reporting for up-to-date results in county, statehouse, congressional, statewide, and national races on election night…and in the days to follow.

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