It has been a long time since I have seen the show “Survivor,” but, the last time I did, each episode culminated in a bit of drama: host Jeff Probst slowly counting the votes that determined who would be booted off the show. Surrounded by flickering torchlight, Probst would pull out each vote, read the name and let the rest of the cast (and viewers at home) calculate who was at risk and who wasn’t. Then the deciding vote, a bit of tumult and the credits.
Probst was deliberate about the vote-counting. He’s described how he would order the votes to maximize tension. No point in making clear that the loser was going home with the first five votes, right? Gotta draw it out. The end results are the same, but you can heighten or dampen engagement simply by changing how you count them.
“Survivor” is a tightly edited television show intended to sell commercials by keeping the audience on the edge of their seats for a full hour. Journalists are not in the same business, so we should stop pretending that there is a back-and-forth jostling for a lead once the results of an election are being counted. Just as on “Survivor,” the end results are the same no matter what. But by pretending one candidate is taking or losing a lead as vote counting moves forward, we reinforce a sense that those results are still fungible — and that, maybe, they’re being manipulated.
Consider the results of the Senate runoff in Georgia on Tuesday. As of 7 p.m. local time, the pool of votes was exactly the same as it would be at the time that counting was finished. But depending on how they were counted you could get — or give — a very different sense of how the election unfolded.
If we take all of the precinct-level results from Georgia and count them in the order to which they favored either Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) or Republican challenger Herschel Walker you get two very different senses of the election.
Here, for example, is what the results would have looked like had you started with the precincts where Walker had the biggest vote advantage, ending with the ones where Warnock had the biggest margins.
The picture that emerges is that Warnock came from behind, passing Walker only at the end.
If we reverse the order, a different picture emerges — one in which it’s Walker who is surging, just not quite getting there in the end.
Of course, both counts end up in the same place. It’s just the perception that’s different. The drama.
You can also see how this can be a problem. If Walker comes out of the gates winning some 75 percent of the vote, his supporters might justifiably assume his victory is a sure thing. They don’t know that the votes are being counted from best to worst for their candidate or, even if they do, they don’t necessarily know how much Walker’s lead will erode as a result. It’s understandable that some might be suspicious at the shift away from their candidate — a shift that is occurring slowly over time, as though it’s being stripped away from the candidate. Though, of course, that’s just an artifact of the method.
Now imagine that a popular presidential candidate is explicitly misleading people about how votes are counted.
To understand election results as they come in, The Washington Post created a computer model that uses some known results — full results from a few precincts, for example — and uses those to estimate how demographically similar areas are likely to have voted. By doing so, we are essentially counting all of the votes at once, establishing an estimate at the outset of where the results will be once all the votes are counted.
On Tuesday night, for example, here’s how our model figured the race looked from when it was turned on (a bit before 8 p.m.) and the end of the night. As you can see, it doesn’t really change! The entire time, it figured that Warnock had an advantage over Walker of about 100,000 votes — where it ended up.
The computer, able to take a big-picture look at what was happening, was immune to the vagaries of the individual precinct results rolling in. When they did — when, say, a chunk of Walker-friendly terrain was added to the total — the model didn’t see this as Walker gaining ground. Instead, it saw those results as largely comporting with what it already predicted, so its expectations didn’t change.
This is admittedly much less dramatic than spending hours salivating over every shift in one direction or the other. But other countries do just fine with spending their time on election night focused on things other than the order in which vote counters are counting votes. In the United Kingdom, for example, they simply announce winners, the drama there being injected with the presence of every candidate onstage at once, including the jokers dressed like clowns or whatever.
Oh, and the drama of revealing the actual winner. That’s what’s important in a political vote. And, for that matter, on “Survivor.” After all, the counting of the votes offers about two minutes of interest. The survivors’ antics over the following episodes provides far more interesting and sustained material.
Lenny Bronner contributed to this report.