On one of the first cold days in Maryland, voters waited in line to cast their ballots before work. For class, we were tasked with reporting from polling places. A woman told me that she had waited for around 45 minutes. She thought that was fine.
I live in a small town on the border of Washington, DC. There was one polling place for around 8,200 residents, not all of whom are eligible to vote. US citizens don’t get the day off to vote; they have to make time to do it. In the past, people have told journalists that they had to wait in line for four or five hours.
In comparison, a 45-minute wait time seems acceptable. Still, I can’t remember a single instance where voting in Vienna took me longer than ten minutes. The wait time seems especially striking when less than half of the eligible population even voted in the 2022 midterms.
Before the election, my roommate, who is not from Maryland originally, talked to me about feeling overwhelmed by the many questions on the midterm ballot. Voters had to choose candidates for governor, senator, state’s attorney, comptroller, county executive, and other offices. Additionally, the ballot posed questions to voters in Prince George’s County about the county’s budget.
My roommate felt they were not sufficiently informed to make all of these decisions. A classmate from out of state wasn’t sure if he would even be eligible to vote in Maryland as a student.
Those anecdotes only underline the well-documented barriers to voting in the US. So how should news outlets report on elections?
In the evening after election day, I joined an election watch party. The news anchors, hosts, and analysts jumped from state to state, from race to race. It was hard for me to keep track of what was happening. CNN, for example, reported on the raw numbers, meaning that the results could change drastically within an hour, when more votes would be counted.
In Austria, journalists typically work with projections. The results can still change, of course, but the trend is mostly accurate.
Data journalist Thomas Wilburn criticized the way media reports on election day in a 2021 article titled “It’s time to rethink how we report election results.” He urged journalists to wait for at least 50% of the vote to be counted before reporting on the results “so that early swings don’t confuse readers” and to stop calling races early on.
Experts have long criticized what is commonly referred to as “horse race journalism”. This type of coverage mostly centers on the race, not on the issues. It focuses on being the first instead of providing the most helpful context and analysis. Structural problems, such as the barriers to voting, would only be mentioned in passing.
My classmate was able to register on election day and cast his ballot. My roommate ended up not voting at all. The barriers to voting remain. Journalists can’t solve this problem, but we can shine a light on the structural problems instead of falling into the trap of covering elections like horse races.