Some Twin Cities news stations didn't explain how a new court decision could invalidate viewers' mail-in ballots

WCCO's news coverage of an appeals court ruling about MN's mail-in ballots

After an appeals court ruling last week potentially invalidated thousands of mail-in ballots in Minnesota, the CBS- and ABC-affiliate TV stations in Minneapolis-St. Paul failed to explain to viewers how they could make sure their vote will be counted in tomorrow’s presidential election.

On the afternoon of October 29, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a seven-day extension the state had previously granted to count mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day. Instead, any mailed ballots received after 8 p.m. on Election Day will be segregated and are not guaranteed to be counted -- that will be determined by a separate court ruling.

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon explained that voters should no longer mail in their ballots, as they are no longer likely to be received in time. He also outlined the possible magnitude of the effect this ruling could have on the election -- out of roughly 2 million requested absentee ballots in the state, nearly 400,000 still hadn’t been received by election officials as of Thursday night.

Fortunately, as the Star Tribune mentioned in a detailed explainer of the state’s mail-in voting process, voters who mailed in a ballot but are worried it may not arrive in time for the new, much shorter deadline still have an option to make sure their vote is counted:

I requested a mail-in ballot but lost it or I’m worried it won’t arrive in time to count. I want to vote in person on Election Day instead. Can I do that?

Yes. Election officials will “spoil,” or invalidate, the original ballot assigned to your voter record and give you a new one. If a “spoiled” mail-in ballot arrives after your new one has been cast, it will not count. You can also drop off your filled-out absentee ballot at the address on the return envelope, typically the county election office.

Good coverage of this ruling would include warnings to viewers that it’s now too late to mail in a ballot and an explanation of how to ensure their vote will count if they’re worried that an already-mailed ballot may arrive too late. Unfortunately for Minnesota voters, not all of the TV news coverage in the state’s largest market included these crucial explanations.

In segments aired the evening after the ruling was announced on October 29 through early morning news reports on October 30, NBC-affiliated KARE and Fox-affiliated KMSP had the most informative coverage of mail-in voting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul TV market. KMSP, which covered mail-in voting four times during this period, mentioned warnings against mailing in a ballot in 100% of its coverage and 75% of its segments explained how voters worried their ballot wouldn’t be received in time could invalidate it and vote in person instead. KARE also covered warnings that it’s now too late to mail in a ballot in each of its 10 segments and mentioned the option for a voter to “spoil” their mail-in ballot and vote in person instead in 60% of its coverage. KARE also included an especially informative explanation of the court ruling in some of its coverage.

Video file

Citation From the October 29, 2020, edition of KARE 11 News at 10

ABC-affiliated KSTP covered the warnings by election officials that it’s too late to mail in a ballot in six of its eight segments on mail-in voting during the studied period, or 75% of the time. But only one of its segments explained to viewers that they could cancel an already-mailed ballot and vote in-person at the polls instead. The vast majority of KSTP’s segments failed to convey this crucial information to viewers.

Video file

Citation From the October 29, 2020, edition of KSTP's 5 Eyewitness News at 6

CBS-affiliated WCCO had the least informative coverage of the mail-in voting ruling in this time period. WCCO mentioned warnings against mailing in a ballot in only five of its eight segments discussing mail-in voting during this time period, or 63% of its coverage. And the station failed to mention a single time that viewers have the option to “spoil” their already-mailed ballot and vote in person instead. Its coverage could actually give the false impression that doing so would be illegal double voting, advising viewers to “shred” their mail-in ballot if they choose to vote in person instead and adding, “Don’t fill out both of them, don’t vote twice.”

Video file

Citation From the October 29, 2020, edition of WCCO 4 News at Ten


Media Matters searched the Kinetiq video database in the Minneapolis-St. Paul television market for any of the terms “mail,” “mail-in,” and “absentee” within proximity of any of the terms “ballot,” “ballots,” “vote,” or “voting” between 6 p.m. CDT October 29, when the local TV stations began covering the court ruling, and 7 a.m. CDT October 30, 2020, before syndicated morning talk shows began airing.

We reviewed search results for local news reports mentioning mail-in voting. We included segments about mail-in voting, which we defined as instances when mail-in voting was the stated topic of discussion or when we found instances of “significant discussion,” which we defined as instances when two or more speakers discussed mail-in voting in multitopic segments with one another.

We coded each segment for whether they mentioned the court ruling; that mail-in ballots had to be received by election officials by 8 p.m. on Election Day; that voters could instead vote in person and have their mail-in ballots voided if they had already mailed them; and that it was too late to mail out ballots to be received by the new deadline.

We did not include reports from nationally syndicated news programs or mentions within teasers for upcoming segments about mail-in voting.