Election Night Expectations

This column was published Tuesday, November 6, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


If you’ve just fetched the hard copy version of this newspaper from your driveway, plopped down in the easy chair, and thumbed your way to the opinion page, but forgot to vote, there’s still time. The polls close at 7:00 p.m.

That’s the problem with an evening newspaper on election night. It goes to bed long before the polls close, let alone the tabulation and reporting of any votes. So, the election night coverage in an evening daily will be long on structure and process stories and short on actual election news.

You’ve already doubtless devoured the frontpage news article and accompanying art (newspaper lingo for “photograph”) of a Manhattan polling venue and the requisite comments from local election officials offering thoughtful, cogent remarks on turnout while studiously dodging the inevitable perfunctory follow-up question, asking them to speculate on what today’s turnout means for either party’s chances.

I’ll be following tonight’s actual news online, trying to glean a sense of what the results in Riley County mean, compared to the results in Wichita, Johnson County and western Kansas. If we see tabulation glitches, a thought may creep into the back of my mind, one unimaginable a generation ago. Is this anything nefarious, or is it an easily correctable human error?

I’ve looked at election nights from both sides, from behind and in front of the cameras and microphones. For the news story that will run before we know anything (see page 1A), I’ve had the duty to ask the election officials about turnout and the inevitable perfunctory follow-up on what it means.

“…election officials refused to speculate on what today’s turnout means for either party…” or “…leaders of both parties are eager to spread the impression that today’s turnout bodes well for their candidates…”

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Tonight, I’ll plop down in my own easy chair and follow the results online. Probably switch on the Topeka TV news at 10, especially if by then, it looks like we’ll know who our next governor will be. The winning gubernatorial candidate’s election night speech will be gleaned from talking points, not a verbatim speech, because if they can’t communicate extemporaneously by this point, we’re all in trouble.

Tonight’s a turning point in the life of the person we will have just elected governor. Two grueling campaigns are over (primary and general), they’ve won them both and you can’t blame them for feeling a tremendous sense of accomplishment and relief.

They’re no longer a candidate. They are governor-elect of the state of Kansas. Stuck, for the next couple of months, in a murky middle between the grubbiness of the campaign and the noble hard work of governing, yet to come. Plenty of work to do between tonight and that frigid January day at noon, when they’ll place their hand on a Bible, swear an oath and deliver an Inaugural address, or Inaugural Address, depending on how you feel about it.

Tonight, the winner is no longer a candidate for governor. It’s their first chance to introduce themselves to the largest audience they will have faced so far. They’ll be surrounded by a hotel ballroom full of really happy people who love them dearly and will make noise and cheer, regardless of what they say. That’s not, or at least that shouldn’t be, their primary audience tonight.

How much of the governor-elect’s remarks will be aimed at the rest of us – the Kansans plopped in our easy chairs, clad in our jammies and slippers, fighting to stay awake? Those are the remarks I will be listening for. Are they gracious and magnanimous in victory? After thanking family and supporters, how quickly do they pivot to even the broad framework of a vision, or a plan to govern?

It won’t be a policy proposal-by-policy proposal State of the State address. Tonight’s will be the wrong venue and the wrong audience. Tonight’s message from our next governor should be lofty and brief. 1. Thank supporters. 2. Here’s our challenge. 3. Here’s how we’ll meet it.

I also hope, desperately, the winner says something nice about their opponents.

This is the moment that will begin to solidify the winner of the election in our hearts and minds as our next governor. If we voted for the winner, we will sleep well. If our candidate fell short, the depth of our restlessness will vary in direct proportion to how much we care and our own individual capacity to deal with it.