Then, a couple days later, after I was reporting that there were at least 3,000 missing ballots in Fairfax County, the Post put out an article that quoted a Fairfax election official as saying that there were only up to 2,000 absentee ballots that hadn’t been included in the count. That turned out to be wrong, and my math clearly demonstrated why that was wrong. And then the Post also relied on the words of another reporter in Richmond who said that the Shockoe Slip-up was a false alarm. A couple days later it turned out there were indeed, as I was reporting, 190 missing votes in Richmond that could change the tally. So it was frustrating. It was at once satisfying to be ahead of traditional media in reporting what was going on in the tally, but it was also frustrating to have to push back against mainstream reports that turned out to be wrong or were old.
What about local press coverage in those areas like Fairfax, etc.?
Local press were very good at bringing color to the story and capturing the scene of the electoral board canvass in Richmond or the canvass of provisional ballots in Fairfax County, but the local reporters did not really have the time or capacity to identify discrepancies in the vote.
What advantages do you have in your position at the Cook Political Report to do that differently?
This is probably the only state in the country where I could pull something like this off. I’ve been obsessed for a long time with how each and every precinct in the state behaves politically and reports its results. But, I’d say that my advantage is that I have the spreadsheet skills to be able to compare large quantities of data quickly and identify outliers. I’m a total quant-politics nerd, so this is probably the only time of year when I’d have a journalistic edge on a lot of other reporters. In this instance the problems fit my skill set well.
How might reporters covering close elections anywhere learn from this race?
Don’t always trust the initial election results that you see, and make sure that they add up. Use whatever tools you have to identify possible discrepancies in the data. Those tools can include your own math skills, past election returns, and it can very possibly include your followers on social media who are capable of crowd-sourcing data and flagging possible errors much more comprehensively than one person can. I was going through this precinct-by-precinct, but I also had followers on Twitter whose names I don’t even know who were going through the state, combing through and identifying errors that I then catalogued into one Google document.
Had you not been involved, do you think the election would have turned out differently or would everything eventually have been all smoothed out?
It would have been figured out eventually. However, it would not have been brought to light as quickly. There may have been more questions from skeptical members of the public about the ways that election officials were changing their totals of votes, and it also might not have been unearthed until a recount, which would have generated a series of lawsuits.
The moment that drove all of this home for me―it was Wednesday night I believe, I received an email from a member of Governor McDonnell’s administration. And I was expecting that email to take me to task for shaming election officials for getting it wrong. Instead it said thank you, and we’re following up on your catalog with the state board of elections. So that went to show me that members of the bureaucracy in charge of counting votes are indeed paying attention to Twitter and social media.
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