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Election night: The best hours to be a journalist

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What the Devil won't tell you

Election night: The best hours to be a journalist

It's the little things that provide a window into what goes into campaigns, humbled by who gets to judge

  • Caitlin Regan/Flickr

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

No. I'm not talking about the ever-encroaching-on-August Christmas season. It's about to be election night. And for a journalist there is no better time to have the gig.

Election night is the bottom of the ninth, the two-minute warning and the home stretch with stakes that actually affect things. As a journalist, the governing is news-copy prose and the campaigning isn't lyrical but coded in sound bites and talking points. The poetry happens on election night.

You get to watch what Rousseau called "the general will" materialize with numeric whimsy and statistical order.

The system is not rigged. We hear the arguments about voter fraud on the right and elections integrity on the left. 

Consider this: For the first 100 years of American political history there was no secret ballot. In machine politics, your boss often knew who you voted for and you better have voted for the Big Boss or you might be out of a job. Benjamin Harrison all but bought Indiana (with New York, one of two post-civil war swing states). His campaign was caught buying votes mid-campaign, collectively shrugged and kept buying it until Harrison won. National reaction against the practice of paying voters led to states adopting the secret ballot during the next few election cycles.

Edgar Allen Poe biographers have long posited he was killed by political gangs forcing him to vote over and over on Election Day. It's in no way certain but election shenanigans were so common that it seemed reasonable he could have been killed by political gangs forcing him into in-person-voter fraud.

Don't be fooled by the naysayers. No one buys elections. They buy air time to blast their opponents and that costs money. That purchase is simply access to you, dear reader. Then you have to separate the tare from the wheat. Don't like negative campaigns? Don't pay attention to the ads. Don't like money ruling politics? Don't just assume an ad is correct because you've seen in 43 times.

Candidates win and lose on their own. I'm a guy who's agog that FBI Director James Comey put an elephant on the scales in the closing days of the campaign. Then he tipped said elephant off the scales, after everyone had stared at the spectacle for a while. Then I remember voters are not without sufficient grounds for 86ing Donald Trump. Sometimes voters just vote the other way. That's not fraudulent.

Holy crap, you mean I won?

Politicians take a lot of grief but one thing they all share is that they stand up and make the case for themselves and their ideas. Some are naive. Some are idiotic ("as a Green Party candidate, my most important goal as county treasurer would be to legalize hemp"). All are how candidates prefer to present themselves and each will be judged by the lot of us.

My first working election night was in Flagstaff in March 1996. I covered the city and worked 40-some-odd straight days watching five candidates run for three spots on a ballot with a massive bond initiative. I covered it like a shutdown cornerback on a possession receiver. Then come election night, and stakeholders clustered in the Coconino County Courthouse watching the city clerk write precinct totals on a big sheet of newsprint fresh off the roll. Folks from all sides of the debate were holding their breath with each new precinct. The bond issue crashed hard. Hard. The council race was too close to call late.

It was absolutely romantic. A calculator, a magic marker and totals out of 30 precincts would decide if all that business the City Council had tinkered with during the past two years passed muster. When the results materialized and one incumbent seemed likely to lose, I followed him out of the room and tried to get a quote. He looked at me, said "I'm sorry" and bolted out in tears. The apology was more to the universe of voters than a reporter seeking a quote.

Late that night — like 2 a.m. — I was typing out my story and one city council member couldn't sleep. He knew I'd be awake and came down to hang out in the newsroom as I wrote my story. He wasn't looking to influence my editorial discretion. He was just driving his family crazy and wanted someone to jibber-jabber with working out numbers in his head about how he might hang on for victory (he was in second place and safe from the fourth place cut off).

We can forget how personally politicos take this stuff and how not knowing if they won or lost can tie them up in knots. It was this guy's life and he couldn't take the suspense. Would he spend all day running his restaurants or would he have to delve into city business for 30 hours every week?

Like clockwork, the whole Arizona political world forgets that about a giant batch of the ballots won't be immediately counted because they are deemed "questionable." If someone was issued an early ballot but showed up at their polling place without it, the county elections apparatus makes sure that voter didn't vote twice.

In 2008, I was in the middle of yet another four-hour conversation with Frank Antenori, who was sweating his race for state representative. Three days had passed since Election Day and Antenori was still waiting for the last primary votes to be counted. I hit refresh on the county election page and — presto — the final results updated. I got to tell Antenori he won.

"Oh my God, I won?" he asked and I could hear him leaving his body on the other end of the phone call. The Republican primary was the race that mattered in his old legislative district. It was real for him. He now had a job to do. For the first, and perhaps only time in his life, he was speechless. He didn't brag and while he was groping for a quote, he pulled up the page and found out Trent Humphries had lost to Marilyn Zurell. "Oh, no! Trent lost!" Antenori said with a gasp, still trying to figure out how his whole world had just been knocked sideways because voters took him up on his offer to represent them in Phoenix.

It's the little things

I remember watching Ted Downing, the flamboyant liberal lawmaker, win his first race and walk into the Republican festivities to congratulate his opponents. I think it was 2000, but I can't be sure. No one ran him off or threatened him with violence. He was basically greeted with a "Hey, Ted."

I remember watching a Democrat and total political novice win a Republican seat on the Coconino County Board of Supervisors by sheer force of will. He had basically knocked on every door in Sedona in a show of retail political tour de force.

In 2004, I was at the Manning House with the GOP watching a happy scene of winning Republican revelry. I got to watch Jonathan Paton finally win a seat in the state House of Representatives.

It was his third attempt and he had been 0-2.

He always struck me as a good guy who considered the issues carefully. He was just young and didn't want to wait his turn. I liked the moxie. This time proved the charm. His mood was somewhat subdued by the recent death of his mother, who never saw her son reach the Legislature.

Candidates work hard driven by a sense of ambition, duty, destiny and follow through. Paton had busted his ass in a pair of losses but each time, he learned a little more and adjusted his strategy. No one will buy this but empathy drives reporters as much as ideology. Good ones crawl inside the heads and hearts of sources to accurately report where they are coming from. I couldn't help but be happy for him.

Humbling moments

Of course, what people hate about the press is what smarty pants we often consider ourselves. Hey, we're the experts. Who the hell are you? It's tempting for reporters to write their election night stories ahead of the actual election and then plug in the quotes. I did it in 2005 prior to the city elections. I mean, c'mon. Kathleen Dunbar and Fred Ronstadt were sure to cruise to re-election over Karin Uhlich and Nina Trasoff, respectively.

Then came the votes. Ronstadt and Dunbar didn't just lose. They lost spectacularly. By the time I got to the Manning House, the Republican victory celebration was all but shut down. Ronstadt and Dunbar were offering their concession speeches. They got buried under the worst days of the Iraq War and just a few months after the Bush administration botched the response to Hurricane Katrina.

A local race had nationalized.

I had not seen that before but the ousted incumbents said as much. "It was a bad night to be a Republican."

Tucson voters schooled my sense of conventional wisdom, and reminded me that I, as the press, don't have the final say. Odd.

Back in the newsroom, election night isn't always star-spangled bunting. Something about the presence of editors sucks the fun out of the job. There was the time in 2000, I was told to get a comment from a losing candidate even if it meant staying until 6 a.m. I did. Ever call a losing candidate at 6 a.m. and ask him why people didn't like him? I got the response you'd expect. Then there was the horrible night that saw our traditional pizzas arrive only to be devoured by the high school sports stringers descending on the Papa John's like a sharks on a harpooned whale. They devoured one of our perks.

It also means a cranky copy desk. Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry had been accused by Democrats of cooking 2006 election results and responded with an improbably involved process to assure elections integrity. It meant we didn't have the results of the 2008 Arizona presidential preference election by the time the copy editors expected to go home. They started yelling at me.

I shot back: "I don't have the results yet. Pretend it's a Wildcat basketball game in overtime." See, if it were a late hoops game against lowly Duquesne University, the copy desk would have to suffer silently. But an election? That's not important enough to warrant leaving late.

Hoops? Democracy? There's no newsroom equivalency. Hoops against a lowly Atlantic 10 team is far more urgent than the workings of democracy. I had to write an election story around the actual election. Somehow, I didn't win a Pulitzer.

Show 'em some respect

Driving around from party to party and back to the newsroom with "Keep on Rocking in the Free World" ringing through your head is a great way for a reporter to spend Election Day. If for no other reason, it's a tribute to those among us who sack up and put their name on a ballot. It's one thing to bitch. It's another thing to ask thousands of voters to prom and hold their breath for the answer.

They do a bunch of stuff none of us want to do. They walk neighborhoods and cold-call voters. They learn to ask for money from strangers and try to keep their integrity while doing so. More often than not, they are successful. They do it for months and upend their family lives all seeking the consent of the governed.

They are sick of complaining and ready to do something.

One thing I never heard anyone say who's done it, that it wasn't worth doing. Once out with friends, I was introduced to a young doctor who wanted to make a run at the state Legislature (I'm not that old, he was a really young doctor). I gave him the advice that it's going to be harder than he thinks, he doesn't know what he's doing and he's likely going to lose because of it. Still, he should do it anyway.  He'd learn a lot and could run again. Matt Heinz took the advice to heart, apparently. He just keeps running and running and running.

The 'it' factor

My best memory of an Election Day, though, wasn't on the job — not exactly. I had a friend who used to grab dinner up at Sullivan's back when I ... uhh ... frequented that establishment. He was a visiting business professor from Duke University at first but then got offered tenure here and moved from North Carolina.

After the 2008 Iowa caucus, I headed to the watering hole and found this guy, his wife and another couple who had taken in a movie and decided to finish off the evening on the Sullivan's patio over a steak dinner.

My friend called me over and asked me to join them while they waited for their food. "Blake here writes for the newspaper." It's how I was always introduced in social situations, right before folks are warned, "He's gonna quote you!" Ha. Ha. Ha. That's funny the first 418 times.

So this foursome asked what I was covering. McCain and the Iowa caucus. I told them. They paused and looked at each other. Absently one of them asked, "Who won the Democratic caucus." I told them Obama did. All four were African American.

My friend Lehman shut his eyes and subtly pumped a fist. His wife and their friends sat perfectly still and remained momentarily silent. Whiteguy Me, right then, understood something I never would have comprehended without that moment. The vibe at the table shook with the feeling "it's possible." Exactly what the "it" was that suddenly proved possible I'm not entirely sure because I like hockey. However, I understood these folks now believed whatever "it" was, at that moment became possible and that was a glorious thing centuries-in-the making.

Then they changed the subject because they weren't going to dwell on the politics of the night. They had other stuff to discuss. I was still blinded by the flash of the obvious.

Election night. The most wonderful time of the year in a democracy. It's the night we affirm our right to steer our common destiny, and do just that.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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