The 2020 Election Results May Be Messy; Don’t Let Your Response Be, Too
By Sean Wherley
With all the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 U.S. Presidential election and whether the results will come within days or weeks of Election Day — or better yet, be honored by a candidate and his supporters — it’s critical that any organization planning to issue a public statement or other communications about the results use this time before November 3 to prepare.
Organizations should first discuss the strategic value of weighing in on the presidential election outcome. As with all communications, your message must be intentional and serve a purpose. Some of the reasons to consider issuing a statement include: 1) your work is connected to the outcome of the election, either directly or indirectly; 2) you want to leverage timely conversations to advance your messaging and/or thought leadership; or 3) you want to reassure your members/clients and funders that your work will continue uninterrupted, no matter who is elected President or how contentious the public response is to the results.
For organizations that want to issue a statement, the inclination may be to draft and distribute a message on Election Night or the following day, describing your reaction to the results and what it portends for the future of your organization, and perhaps for the country. Chances are it will be hurried due to lack of sleep, heightened emotions, and a desire to beat others to the punch. None of that helps in developing a thoughtful and effective message.
Rather, by contemplating and drafting a message in advance of Election Day, you will have a clearer and more objective mind, one free of the strong and sometimes conflicting feelings that may affect your tone if you wait until November 3 or later to prepare a response.
If your organization plans to issue a statement externally or internally following Election Day, here are some guidelines to follow:
- Keep it under 300 words. It forces you to be succinct and it is more likely to be read.
- Be respectful of either candidate and his supporters. Avoid criticizing the candidate’s personal flaws or stereotyping his supporters.
- Acknowledge the divisions within the country but finish with hope or a call to action. Many people will be upset — regardless of the results — and some of them may be your staff, board or members/clients. Use the results to motivate people to get involved and create the change they want in our society.
- Draft all statements at least a week before Election Day (October 27) to allow time for revisions.
- If the results are not projected by the evening of November 4, it may be helpful to distribute a statement within a day or two urging calm and patience, particularly in light of how much criticism is directed at the vote counting process by the candidates and their supporters.
Another benefit of starting the process before Election Day is it allows you time to prepare for the unusual array of scenarios in 2020. Rather than the traditional options of Candidate A beats Candidate B or the reverse, this year we must take into account other factors that complicate an orderly decision, such as Donald Trump’s false claims about the integrity of voting by mail, his refusal to honor the results and his threats to stay in office even if he loses. Below are some of those scenarios and ways to address them in your statement or messages:
1. An uncontested win by Joe Biden
Acknowledge that democracy remains strong and there is much work ahead of us to implement the change we want. Emphasize how our country’s founders established the peaceful transfer of power and how that must be respected by Inauguration Day in January 2021.
2. An uncontested win by Donald Trump
Acknowledge that the voters have spoken and there is much work ahead of us to protect the people and programs that matter to us. Our democracy demands our participation on Election Day and throughout the year, and that cannot let up in the coming months and years.
3. A win by Joe Biden BUT it is contested by Donald Trump
Describe how democracy is a complicated but strong institution that must be respected and defended. The voters are integral to that democratic process, and they have spoken and the results must be honored. We cannot give in to fear and harassment at a time when our society is already struggling under a pandemic and economic recession.
4. A win by Donald Trump BUT it is contested by Joe Biden
Describe how democracy is a complicated but strong institution that must be respected and defended. The voters are integral to that democratic process, and all votes must be fairly counted. Failure to count all ballots is a violation of our democracy and there is a need to ensure people’s right to vote was not impeded or violated.
5. An undetermined result lasting days or weeks after Election Day
This year’s election is especially fraught because of the pandemic and the tens of millions of more votes cast by mail than normal. While we may want to know who won on Election Night, we must let the vote counting process play itself out. Let us look to the example of California and other states that have a history of voting by mail to know even though it may take days or weeks to learn the result, it is a fair and routine process.
While we have no idea how long it will take to count the vote and announce final results, it is best to pause rather than expedite the release of your external and internal statements or messages. By waiting a day or two after Election Day, it allows you time to gauge the reaction of both candidates, and perhaps more importantly, that of either man’s supporters.
Incorporating those responses into the message you drafted before Election Day will make it more timely, and by waiting a day or more, you avoid having to issue a second — or clarification — statement because the first one was premature (for example, if you release a statement November 4 about Trump winning when much of the mail-in ballots remain to be counted and Biden wins days or weeks after those votes are tabulated).
In terms of when to release a statement, the best guide to follow is the Associated Press, which is nationally recognized for its decades-long accuracy in “calling” election winners — even before all votes have been tallied. Keep in mind, calling a winner may take anywhere from one day to one month or more. During the Presidential contest in 2000 that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, Al Gore did not concede until 36 days after Election Day.
The protracted decision twenty years ago may provide insight about what to expect in 2020, but this year could be considerably more volatile and test the country’s patience, trust, and resolve. In spite of how messy the process may be, there is no reason for your response to be, too. Use the time now to prepare a thoughtful message that affirms your mission and resonates with your audiences.
Thank you to our clients and partners who are on the frontlines supporting the communities most affected right now.
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