Chris Jones: A modest proposal for our democracy: Change those election night ‘magic walls’ on CNN and FOX

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

How, in the absence of any evidence whatsoever, did President Donald J. Trump persuade so many ordinary Americans of the veracity of his Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent?

That will be a matter of great interest to future political scholars and historians, given the horrific consequences of an act of persuasion that culminated in an armed mob attacking the Capitol, resulting in a destabilized country, terrorized legislators and the loss of human life. Even after Trump is consigned to the detritus of the past, the question will linger.

Undoubtedly, many in the mob had preexisting agendas and were merely looking for an excuse, like dry wood hoping for a match. The argument has also been made that Trump is a sufficiently a charismatic figure among his most ardent followers that merely an assertion by the man was enough to fill planes headed toward Washington, D.C., even if some on board later came to regret their presence.

Still, some people must genuinely have been convinced by this nonsense.

Why? What other data were they looking at beyond the Trumpian Twitter? (This is back when he still had one.)

I’d suggest the way the TV networks report election results was a big part of the problem, especially in a time when we have such a stark divide between voter preferences in rural and urban areas.

And while a reform surely won’t fix most of the problems in America, some modest changes might at least increase confidence in the fairness of our elections.

And, once cool heads start looking at this issue, it will be better understood that a broader buy-in actually is in the interest of all Americans, going forward.

I’d suggest three major changes to the so-called “magic walls,” really digitized maps, so deftly manipulated by the great John King of CNN, along with his competitors. This mesmerizing way of reporting real-time election results is only about a dozen years old, but it already is causing huge problems.

Here’s why. Take what happened in the Senate runoff in the State of Georgia on Jan. 5.

If, like me, you were watching CNN, you saw both Republican candidates in the lead, even after most counties in the state had reported as many as 90% of their votes. King, a consummate broadcaster, knew how to inject the kind of dramatic tension that keeps you watching, which is why he makes the big bucks, and, in the early part of the night, he seemed to suggest that the Democrats were running out of options to catch their rivals. For hours, a nonpartisan viewer would have ended up with the impression that the Republicans were ahead.

This was both true and false: The Democrats did indeed have very few counties left where they could play catch-up, but the county with the least number of votes counted, DeKalb, was one of the most populated. Political sophisticates could watch King and know that, in fact, the Democrats were winning. It was clear from the start that the Republican margins in the rural counties were insufficient to counter what was likely to happen in heavily democratic DeKalb, and in the remnants of the vote-count in the other counties that make up the Atlanta area.

But most people are not political sophisticates nor even relative thinkers. (Ask any educational theorist: A hefty portion of America thinks first in absolutes, not shades of gray.)

What they saw was Republican leads suddenly evaporating in a puff of smoke when a great dump of DeKalb results came in all at once, late in the evening. Everything changed in a moment and for the worse, if you were a Republican. And subsequent events showed it wasn’t hard for Trump to channel that anger into a conspiratorial fallacy of theft.

This was especially easy since exactly the same thing had happened on King’s “magic board” during the presidential election in November.

So here’s the first proposal: Change the maps so they reflect population instead of geography, at least within states. Geographic size is not relevant in elections decided by the number of votes; it’s all about population, not area or even location.

Apparent Trump leads vanished late in the night, just as soon as big Democratic counties reported their results. It looked to some of those supporters as if their favored candidate had been ahead, only for the lead to be taken away. A useful analogy would be a football game where one team is winning, only for a series of bad calls to steal the game. It was easy to arrive at that conclusion.

In fact, of course, Trump never was ahead at all. In fact, he’d already lost. All the networks were doing was responding to votes from the past as they were reported in the present. Obviously, the more dense the county, the longer it takes to count the votes.

Obviously, right? The issue is, that truth got drowned out by all the symbolism running in the opposite direction: 90% of the vote is already in! Trump is leading in Georgia! Democrats are biting their nails! Tension! Tension! Tension!

We’re conditioned from sports broadcasting to think these game-in-progress leads are real, not illusory. In sports, they are real. Just not in vote counting. And Trump was able to manipulate that disconnect and threaten our democracy.

So here’s the second proposal: The networks should report all the counties at once, in alphabetical order, one after the other, not over several hours in the order that they release their count.

That would mix up the rural and the urban and avoid misleading passionately involved viewers as to the real state of the vote. Sure, the wait would be longer. But if all the networks agreed to follow that rule, election night would be a lot more truthful. We would not get hour after hour of one party appearing to be a lead they never earned, only for it to be erased in the blink of an eye, enraging its supporters.

My third and final suggestion probably would be hardest for CNN, Fox and the rest to swallow. Ween anchors and analysts away from the old way of doing this. Get rid of that ticker tape-like counter until there is a fair and full picture of the vote. Stick to predictions, which are fair game, but don’t offer up misleading data.

Tell the people what happened as it has happened, but only once all the real votes have been counted.

Then, when a president tries to lie about what happened in an election, maybe far fewer people will listen.