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Amid Fears of False Victory Claim by Trump, Media Urged to Form Plan to Combat Election Night Lies

The National Task Force on Election Crises warned that "period of uncertainty" caused by surge in mail-in ballots could "allow bad actors to attempt to undermine our democratic process."

Two journalists watch the CNN Election Night program on November 9, 2016 at the Hilton Hotel in New York City. (Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

In the face of growing concerns that President Donald Trump could prematurely declare victory on Election Night if he jumps out to an early lead in in-person votes, a watchdog group is calling on major corporate media outlets to detail how they plan to cover candidates who pronounce themselves winners before the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots have been counted.

"Challenging the lies at the very point of utterance will be essential to stopping them from developing into a contested election and possibly a constitutional crisis."
—Ed Kilgore, New York magazine

"Due to the ongoing pandemic, experts estimate that mail-in and absentee ballots might make up as many as 70% of all ballots cast in this election. It could take days or weeks to complete an accurate count of all votes," the National Task Force on Election Crises warns in a letter (pdf) sent late Wednesday to Fox News, the Associated Press, and the National Election Pool (NEP)—a consortium of news organizations including CNN, CBS, NBC, and ABC.

"This period of uncertainty will add further pressure to an already strained system and allow bad actors to attempt to undermine our democratic process," the letter reads.

The task force is urging news outlets to take four specific steps at least one month before Election Day to combat "misinformation" and reduce the potential for chaos on November 3:

  1. Share publicly how exit polling (for NEP) and the election voter survey (for Votecast) will account for the increase in absentee ballots;
  2. Share publicly how you will contextualize discrepancies between Election Day results and final results, given that it may take days or weeks to count every vote, especially in three key states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) whose election laws do not allow for absentee ballots to be  counted until Election Day;
  3. Share publicly the policies and procedures you will use to protect your decision desks from internal and external pressure—political or otherwise—to call the election before the election results are clear, taking into consideration the number of votes that have been counted, the margin of difference, and the number of outstanding votes to be counted; and
  4. Share publicly your plans to cover any politician who declares victory prior to your ability to make an accurate, evidence-backed projection.

"We believe that this level of transparency will help increase public confidence in the process and outcome," the group writes. "The role of the free press—your role—has never been more important. We urge you to take these additional steps towards transparency as part of your mission to inform the public and deliver accurate coverage of election results, especially how you account for the millions of expected absentee ballots... The American electorate—and our democracy—is depending on you."

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The call from the election task force comes just over two weeks after Josh Mendelsohn, the CEO of Democratic data firm Hawkfish, warned that election results prior to the counting of absentee ballots could falsely indicate a Trump landslide.

"This is a very real possibility, that the data is going to show on election night an incredible victory for Donald Trump," said Mendelsohn, who termed the potentially misleading early results a "red mirage."

As New York magazine's Ed Kilgore wrote last week, "the success of any Red Mirage scenario on Election Night... depends on a great deal of media complicity."

"Team Trump would need news outlets to help spread its bogus claims, most obviously," Kilgore noted. "The effort would also require just enough credulity from media figures to keep Trump and his surrogates from being howled down before MAGA folk can take to the streets demanding an end to the counting of 'fraudulent' mail ballots."

Kilgore applauded Twitter's announcement last week that it plans to prohibit "misleading claims about the results" and premature claims of victory on its platform. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also vowed earlier this month to "make sure that people aren't declaring victory and saying that any kind of ongoing counting of votes is evidence of a rigged election or anything like that."

"Once the victory claims gain widespread credence, even if it's just within Trump's own hard-core base," Kilgore warned, "it will be difficult to avoid treating the outright theft of a presidential election and a terrible long-term threat to democracy as anything other than a he-said, she-said matter on which reasonable people can disagree. Challenging the lies at the very point of utterance will be essential to stopping them from developing into a contested election and possibly a constitutional crisis."

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