Elections 2020: Language Guide
Published October 2020
Below is not a comprehensive glossary of the vocabulary of elections, but is instead guidance on particular terms that may make reporting more difficult to navigate for audiences.
Absentee voting vs. early voting vs. mail-in voting & vote by mail
These terms are not necessarily interchangeable across the U.S. In some cases, it’s really a “rectangle-square” situation, in which all absentee voting is mail-in voting, but not vice versa. Use the correct vocabulary for your region so residents know which guidance to follow.
Provide a glossary of terms for your audience to link to in your coverage but also be sure to define (or gloss) these terms where they are used, as not all audiences will see or visit a glossary link.
When a public figure baselessly, misleadingly, or against evidence to the contrary makes statements that call legal voting processes into question, it may be appropriate to go beyond claiming they are “casting doubt” on the election process — especially if they would benefit from distrust in that process. Sowing distrust among voters is proactively undermining the results of that election. “Casting doubt” is not done in a vacuum, and thus should be reported in that context.
The typical denotation for this term is fundamentally unserious and even dismissive. However, it is often applied to the loose theories of mis- and disinformation surrounding QAnon and its followers, which, as a growing political phenomenon with serious real-world consequences, may not be appropriately described this way. One alternative, suggested by Buzzfeed News, is “collective delusion.”
Read more: How journalists should not cover an online conspiracy theory and How to cover politicians who promote conspiracy theories like QAnon
Being slow or late is the denotation of a “delay,” but the common connotation is that a delay is unnatural, occurring as a result of some external action. Thus, using “delay” to describe the expected pace of an event incorrectly associates it with intention or interference.
Try these instead:
- Election results on track for longer counting process
- Mail-in voting means longer ballot count
- Expect slower pace for election results
Due to changes in the voting process made in response to public health information, an increase in mail-in voting will almost certainly delay election results past the timeline to which most Americans are accustomed. Using this term instead of “Election Day” appropriately sets expectations for audiences. See more tips about Election Week.
When accompanying the political endorsement of an Editorial Board, the words “Opinion:” or “Editorial Board:” should appear first in headlines. This way, it is clear that the endorsement does not come from the newspaper staff as a whole and that the clarification does not get cut off by metadata on social media posts. Confusion among audiences about these terms is well-established.
A race cannot be “flipped,” “taken,” or “stolen” until the ballots are counted. Do not use this language to describe how the counting of mail or absentee ballots may affect final results in comparison to in-person, day-of voting. Implying that a race is decided by which votes are counted first equates when votes are counted with either legitimacy or nefarious intent. Instead, explain that the final result is unclear due to uncounted ballots.
In the lead/ahead
When reporting incomplete vote tallies, use these terms with extreme caution. If you aren’t able to confidently call a race, don’t use terms that imply result outcomes are certain. Instead, if current vote tallies are not yet definitive, explain why, note the number of uncounted ballots that remain, and emphasize that the race isn’t over until all ballots are counted.
Describing how the counting of all ballots will affect the results of an election as a “mirage” or “shift” in an attempt to prepare audiences for changing tallies is an admission that reporting on results is premature and should thus be avoided. Rather than try to explain to audiences why “results” may appear to change at all, explain why your newsroom cannot call a race and how many votes are still uncounted.
Considering the expectations for increased mail-in voting, the number of precincts reporting — a typical and well-understood gauge for how “final” results are — is unlikely to be accurate or helpful in understanding how far the ballot count has to go. Use this phrase sparingly, and not without explanation for mail-in caveats.
If an election poll (or any poll, for that matter) truly needs its own headline, that headline should always start with “Poll:” and ideally “X Source Poll:” (as in “CNN Poll: Purple Party ahead”) to reinforce that the information which follows comes from a poll and is not a certainty. See more on polls and predictions.
In the left social snippet from CNBC the word “poll” is cut off in the headline and left to the subheading…
…whereas The Capital Times headline, right, includes “Poll:” first, ensuring it will always appear in social snippets.
Explain to your audience how your publication defines undecided voters when reporting in the aggregate and what definitions are being used when referencing polling (whether results are based on voting patterns or self-identification, etc.). Research shows “undecided voters” are not necessarily independent, moderate or non-partisan, though framing may assume them to be.
Knowing what we know about the realities of voter fraud (that it is much less common than those who fear monger about it say it is), the phrase should be used carefully and within this context. General comments from public figures about fear of voter fraud should never stand alone in a headline.
The phrase “voting twice” does not accurately represent either purposeful, illegal voting OR the process of using provisional ballots in case one’s mail-in ballot goes uncounted. Either case should be specified instead. If public figures encourage “voting twice,” they encourage voter fraud, and it should be stated as such. This New York Times headline from September exemplifies how the more ambiguous phrase “voting twice” is allowed to stand in for the encouragement of voter fraud.
This phrase, often used to denote a false or misleading statement made by a public figure, is only appropriate when no evidence both for and against the statement exists. If evidence exists that refutes their statement, then “without evidence” is inappropriate because it assumes the truth is unknowable. If one speaks without evidence to support their claims when refutations exist, “against evidence” may be more appropriate.