Television networks are adding experts in election law to their election night coverage teams so they’re prepared to explain legal challenges or irregularities that may come up during the vote.
Veteran attorney Ben Ginsberg, who represented George W. Bush when the 2000 presidential race was decided in the Supreme Court, has joined CNN for this purpose. CBS News hired David Becker, founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research.
ABC and NBC have made similar arrangements, although some of those experts will have more offscreen roles.
“If the country is going to war, you want an admiral or general to help you figure out what is going on,” said David Bohrman, executive producer of CBS’ coverage.
Becker, former director of the elections program at Pew Charitable Trusts who also worked in the Justice Department, said he sees the CBS role as an extension of his efforts to educate the public about voting issues.
Becker said it’s inevitable there will be Election Day incidents such as polling sites where technology breaks down or people who try to intimidate voters, but he expects these will be isolated and it will be his job to explain that.
“This is going to be the most secure election that we’ve ever had,” he said.
A flurry of court decisions during the week before Tuesday’s election on challenges to rules in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina on how long votes can be counted, with the expectation of more to come, illustrates the need for expertise.
Besides Ginsberg, New York University constitutional law professor Richard Pildes is also doing work for CNN. He appeared on the network last week to discuss the ruling barring Wisconsin from counting ballots that arrive after Election Day.
Pildes, who said he has been encouraging people to vote in person wherever possible, said he worried about an “explosive situation” if days drag on without a winner being declared in the presidential race.
“It will be better if we can get a result sooner rather than later,” he said. “I think everyone recognizes that.”
NBC News has hired a firm that specializes in election law for advice and to provide lawyers who can appear on the air if they need to, said division president Noah Oppenheim. Like many news organizations, NBC assembled a team that has been specifically covering election integrity issues, with investigative reporter Cynthia McFadden playing a big role.
“It’s not an expertise that we have had to build from scratch, but we certainly are focused on it this cycle,” Oppenheim said.
The ABC News experts will work offscreen to brief network correspondents and anchors on the issue. Marc Burstein, the network’s top elections producer, said ABC believes it’s best for viewers to see faces they’re familiar with.
Fox News is relying on its in-house team of legal analysts, said Alan Komissaroff, senior vice president of news and politics.
“We would be negligent if we didn’t have someone with the expertise available to us if we need it,” Bohrman said.
To a certain extent, CBS’ Becker see bolstering public confidence in the nation’s elections system as part of his job. He said he knows many elections officials across the country and that “by and large, these are people that want as many people to vote with confidence and security as possible.”
He said he doubts Russia or any other nation has the ability to disrupt the nation’s voting systems to any large degree because there will be a paper trail for nearly 95 percent of the votes that are cast.
He’s more concerned about the spread of disinformation sowing doubt about the election.
“No matter what happens, a portion of the public will not believe in the result,” Becker said. “Part of our job is to make sure that this portion of the population is as small as possible.”