I thought I'd write the ultimate elections "process story" today -- a story about the process of the process, as it were. Mostly this is because, once again, it's hard to concentrate on anything else in the lead-up to another election night, where millions (well, at least thousands) of political wonks breathlessly wait to hear from Outer Podunk County to see who they voted for.
My point today, and it will be a brief one, is that things have gotten a lot easier for those of us inclined to do so. Anyone can sit with one browser page open and see all the results stream in, in real-time. The data that used to be filtered through mainstream news organizations is now readily available to all -- without the filter, if you so choose. You don't have to listen to some talking head reading numbers off a piece of paper, you can just read the same numbers yourself as they come in.
Now, this isn't the first election where this is true, of course. It's been a gradual shift over the past 20 years or so. A quick history of election night coverage would show growing from the dark ages -- where radio and television would have rooms full of people frantically working phones and writing numbers on chalkboards -- up to where we are now. First there came the wall-to-wall coverage from cable television and then the internet opened the raw numbers up to all.
Even online, there has been a lot of improvement. At first, it was rather difficult to see returns in real-time, especially for individual states (in a general presidential election) or for the minor primaries and caucuses. Often the only source was a state board of elections site that was clunky and didn't update itself (or would even die from the surge in visitors). But things have gotten better, over time. The media realized that their new job was to present the returns as they were posted -- in as great detail as they could manage. Getting people to use the cnn.com or washingtonpost.com elections return pages meant putting up the most information possible in the easiest-possible format to understand. We're now at the point where you can view a state map divided into counties, and see each precinct's numbers as they come in. Data is updated automatically every 30 seconds, so you don't even have to refresh the page on your browser.
The only real "voice of authority" job the media has left is to call the state for the winner. Some media organizations are more timid than others (some call states extremely early, even when it's close), but they all at some point reach a level of confidence in who the winner will be and share that with the viewers. But there's not much of a race to get this scoop -- it ultimately doesn't matter which station calls a state first anymore.
One other change worth mentioning is that the mainstream media has reined itself in from providing data too early. Due in part to the 2000 presidential election fiasco, and also due to calling a few states spectacularly wrong here and there, major networks now all refuse to provide any exit polling data before the polls in the state actually close. This is a beneficial change, because releasing early numbers can indeed influence the late turnout -- if you wait until the end of the day to vote but then hear "Candidate Smith has already won the state" on the radio, then you're not as likely to make the effort to vote, especially if you were going to vote for Jones instead.
In any case, I (rather obviously) didn't have much to say or any major point to make with all of this. I'm just glad that political wonks have reached the current golden age of election-watching, that's all. Traditionalists can continue watching the major networks' condensed reports, more modern traditionalists (if that's not an outright oxymoron) can watch cable news anchors flail about in the effort to fill the airwaves with words while they wait for the numbers to come in, and the online community can get numbers broken down into great detail without having to listen to any of the "expert commentary" at all.
I've already spent quite a number of nights this year in front of a computer screen myself, and I'll again be doing so tonight. This will all lead up to the big event in November, where an absolute flood of information will be available. However you watch the returns coming in tonight, I guess what I'm trying to say is be thankful there are so many options, with or without commentary from pundits. We've come a long way from waiting for Walter Cronkite to tell us who won, that's for sure.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant