Beyond the horse race: voting process coverage in 2020

In October 2020, a group of political communication researchers came together to form a scholarly network of experts, the Election Coverage and Democracy Network, with the intent to assist journalists with the difficult job of covering an extraordinary election. The group produced a white paper detailing recommendations for covering the election, taking into account journalistic constraints. Among the recommendations included in this white paper was for journalists to elevate voters and election administrators, producing coverage that focuses on the process of voting.

This sort of coverage, what I call voting process coverage, is valuable to news outlets as it features human-interest, showing everyday acts of civic duty, and also permits journalists to distance themselves from the partisan fray. Voting process coverage is also likely to appeal to news consumers, who are more likely to be voters. I define voting process coverage as coverage that includes a discussion of electoral administration, electoral institutions, and electoral processes.

Voting process coverage might include interviews with poll workers, discussion of how ballots are counted, or footage of long lines at polling places. Such process coverage is likely featured throughout the election cycle but is more likely to be allocated airtime in the days immediately preceding Election Day and during early voting. This is particularly true for television news coverage, during which time there is more opportunity for compelling visuals to accompany coverage. Importantly, this coverage can also be of utility to news consumers as they prepare to cast their ballot.

At least anecdotally, this sort of coverage was in heavy rotation during coverage of the 2020 election. While national outlets like Slate covered how the AP will decide when to make calls, and The New York Times reported on estimated ballot counting timelines state-by-state, local news outlets ran features on the teams that process ballot drop boxes and poll workers.

And yet, researchers have heretofore neglected the study of this subset of electoral coverage. I argue that voting process coverage is worthy of scholarly attention as it differs in important ways from the two types of electoral coverage that researchers focus on. First, unlike strategic game coverage, which discusses strategies and tactics and pollsputting campaigns and candidates at the center, voting process coverage centers citizens. Second, often issue coverage is lauded as the substantive alternative to the horse race, and yet research shows it makes up only a fraction of coverage, in part because it is unlikely to make journalists’ agenda. On the other hand, co-author Christopher Mann and I find that voting process coverage is substantial and more likely to be included in broadcasts in the lead up to elections.

So how much of 2020 election coverage featured voting process? While it will take time to carefully parse the data, some insights can be gleaned from the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer. This program analyzes a dataset featuring over 270,000 hours of television news programming and commercials, including Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. In tandem with a voting process dictionary, validated on a manually coded dataset of 2016 and 2018 national television news election coverage, I use their search function to query caption text, pulling all instances of search terms included in the dictionary on all 3 cable networks from January 1, 2020 to November 4, 2020. As the default setting of the program captures only the utterance of the word and coverage includes more than just the term itself, I include in this query 30-second windows around each term, or the screen time equivalent of 2-sentences. To put the amount of screen time into context, I also estimate the amount of coverage given the total amount of coverage on all 3 networks. This series can be found in Figure 1. This series shows the total estimated screen time dedicated to coverage of all search terms from the voting process dictionary.

Figure 1: Ratio of airtime on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News dedicated to voting process coverage

As the Figure shows, a substantial amount of airtime is dedicated to voting process coverage, but this is particularly true in the days leading up to Election Day. The ratio of voting process coverage was at its highest on November 3, 2020 (0.358), with the second-highest ratio falling on Election Day (0.354).

These data underscore the argument made herein, that while horse race coverage has (understandably) been the topic of scholarly focus, this focus neglects a subset of coverage that is of empirical and normative interest: voting process coverage. While much analysis of the 2016 election focused on media failures, as scholars unpack the role of the media in the 2020 election, the story of voting process coverage may be a compelling example of democracy-worthy news practice.