The Associated Press has been counting the votes in US elections for more than 170 years, but this is the first year the news agency is actively preparing to contradict the president on election night.
“We’ve thought about [this scenario] a lot,” said Sally Buzbee, executive editor of the AP, adding that the news agency was willing to challenge President Donald Trump or his Democratic rival Joe Biden if either candidate declared victory before it had called the race.
“We will fairly assertively say — both in our journalism and going on television, doing whatever we have to do — ‘here is the mathematical reason we are not calling the race’.”
She added: “Fighting against disinformation is a major part of what we are trying to do this year.”
The US media plays an unusually large role on election night compared with other democracies. As votes roll in across the country, Americans rely on news groups to call races in individual states throughout the evening. They make these calls based on a combination of proprietary polling data and vote counts on the night, normally in advance of the official tallies.
In this election, organisations such as the AP and US broadcasters such as NBC are preparing for a cocktail of factors that has made vote counts much more uncertain than usual, according to executives, who are braced for an election night that may not result in a clear winner.
Given the unprecedented amount of mail-in ballots and early voting because of coronavirus, it could take days or even weeks to determine an outcome. Democrats are expected to vote by mail in greater numbers than Republicans, raising the possibility that ballots tallied early on election day could favour Mr Trump, but days later tip the victory to Mr Biden once counts are complete.
Mr Trump has attempted to portray mail-in ballots as fraudulent, raising the prospect of a contested election and a political crisis. On Wednesday he said he hoped the courts would intervene to stop the count in states where ballots are still being tallied after November 3, and some pundits fear he could declare victory based on early vote tallies that might show him ahead.
“We’ll see what happens at the end of [election day]. Hopefully it won’t go longer than that,” the president said. “Hopefully the few states remaining that want to take a lot of time after November 3 to count ballots, that won’t be allowed by the various courts.”
Arnon Mishkin, director of the Fox News “decision desk” who is responsible for calling the race for the Murdoch-controlled cable television channel, said: “There has always been a slight skew [for mailed-in votes]. Nothing like what we’re seeing this year.”
Mr Mishkin predicts that in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state which does not begin counting early votes until the election day, the early results will “look a lot more Trump than what the actual final number is”.
The opposite is likely in Florida, which begins counting early votes in advance of November 3, and therefore could skew towards Mr Biden before all of the in-person results are tabulated.
Mr Mishkin, a registered Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said he has been advising Fox News anchors on the potential for uncertainty. “We will give that guidance to all of our reporters: do not draw conclusions if you’re seeing a lead that’s inconsistent with pre-election polling,” he said.
James Goldston, president of ABC News, said: “The level of uncertainty is unprecedented. What uncertainty does is it just slows the process down. We have to plan for that process not ending on the night.”
All the news heads the FT spoke with emphasised one point: a delay in counting the votes does not equal corruption or fraud.
US news networks were stung badly two decades ago, when they declared that George W Bush had won Florida, and thereby the presidential election. Their calls prepared Democratic candidate Al Gore to concede that night.
But in the small hours of the morning, vote tallies showed Mr Bush’s lead had shrunk, leading Mr Gore to retract his concession in an embarrassing blow to the networks’ credibility. It would take another month of chaotic Florida recounts and legal challenges before the US Supreme Court voted to end the process, giving the election to Mr Bush.
Since then these networks have seemingly been more cautious; in 2004, for example, they did not declare a winner until the day after election day.
Susan Zirinsky, head of CBS News, predicts a “very unusual election night”.
One major change this year is that there will be two different groups assembling exit poll data that informs decisions about races. The major networks have historically relied on the National Election Pool. But after the 2016 race, the AP and Fox developed a new voter survey which focuses outreach more on early voters.
Given the potential differences between the two sets of data, Ms Zirinsky warned: “You may have an election night where some [news organisations] are calling states, and others are not.”
Already more than 70m ballots have been cast across the country, according to the US Elections project. Turnout could be record-breaking.
In the countdown to the 2020 election, stay on top of the big campaign issues with our newsletter on US power and politics with columnists Rana Foroohar and Edward Luce. Sign up here
Voting in advance is not new. Some 40 per cent of Americans voted before election day in 2016, through mailed-in or absentee ballots or early voting. But that number is expected to increase to about 60 per cent in 2020 because of the pandemic.
“Roughly half of the battleground states have a ton of experience counting early and mail-in votes. Rough half don’t,” said Noah Oppenheim, head of NBC News.
Mr Biden has held a steady lead over Trump in national polls for several months, albeit a smaller one in the battlegrounds that will decide the contest. But American media remains wary given the results of the 2016 contest, in which early exit polls indicated Hillary Clinton was ahead of Trump on the night of the election.
“So many of us were so wrong,” Chris Wallace, Fox News anchor, told an FT conference this month. “I remember meeting in the executive suite at Fox on election night at about 5:30, and the exit polls were out and . . . anybody with a lick of sense saw that and said: Hillary is going to win.”
Mr Wallace is hoping for a “landslide, either way” on election night.
“Whether it’s a Biden landslide of a Trump landslide, something that is so conclusive that there can’t be any talk of ballots being harvested or voter suppression,” he said. “And we’re able to say: this is the president of the United States.”