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In Mail Ballot Era, Learning to Wait on Results

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OPINION: In Mail Ballot Era, Learning to Wait on Results

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Whoa, whoa, whoa. Things are going just a little too fast. Stephen Colbert calls for time-out at the Richmond Olympic Oval to get a few minutes.

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In earlier, simpler times -- before the Internet -- we journalists worried about being guilty of "a rush to judgment." Reporters talked of the value of having the best story, not the first one.

These days, they have an adjective to describe journalists who don't rush to judgment.

Unemployed.

There's a contest on, by the second, to be the first to post, to analyze a new development, preferably in 140 characters on Twitter. Heck, analysis is routinely done before the results are known.

But in addition to all the problems inherent in this kind of instant analysis, there's a special problem with doing this in California.

While the media is digital, the methods of voting are old-fashioned. And the growing method of ballot delivery -- the U.S. mail -- is positively 18th century. More than half of California voters are believed to have voted by mail this time.

Which means the media are under pressure to judge the results before there are results.

In the mail ballot era, counting can take a couple weeks for all ballots. And when races are close, that means the winners won't be known for a couple weeks. We still don't know who has made the top two in several legislative races, and we don't have final results on Prop 29.

Of course, that didn't stop your blogger -- or any number of outlets -- from pronouncing winners and losers very late on election night, or the day after. Some of those losers (for example, those who supported Prop 29) could still come out winners.

(Here's my pre-emptive defense of emphasizing the failures of Prop 29: the collapse of support for Prop 29 was a big news story -- particularly in light of arguments made about the measure's budget policy -- but my analysis won't bother cancer research advocates if they pull out a narrow victory in the final count. They'll laugh all the way to the state treasury).

Even candidates have some trouble with this.

One of the losers your blogger pronounced was a Los Angeles-area assembly candidate named Torie Osborn, who was much touted but was in fourth place for much of election night.

Osborn was still in third the day after the election when she sent a concession-style email ("We ran a hell of a campaign" was the subject line) to her supporters thanking them for their hard work -- and congratulating the two candidates who appeared to have bested her.

By Friday, she had sent out a new email saying she still had a chance to make it into the top two with so many mail ballots being counted. ""Hang in there, folks..." was the subject line on this one.

A couple of lessons on this. In the mail ballot era, one should never concede. And journalists might do well to make a practice of taking a week off after the election -- a cooling off period to permit vote tallies before one is forced to do any instant analysis.

In the meantime, a memo to all those county registrars out there: hurry up and count. I have a bunch of blog posts already written. And I've gotta produce two of these a day. But I don't know whether to file them until I have the results! 

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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