Two political scientists, Pippa Norris and Patrick Dunleavy, have accused the BBC and others of “systemic media bias” on the recent UK election night for not emphasizing the voting outcome and instead focusing on the seats. Their claims appear at the LSE blog. Of course, I am very much inclined to agree that votes and seats both matter–I’ve (co-) written two books that have both words, votes and seats, in their titles, after all! Thus I largely agree with Norris and Dunleavy’s bigger point that media coverage in majoritarian electoral systems tends to exaggerate the notion that a party that wins the seat outcome has a “mandate”. As I said in my own election post-mortem, the “mandate” claim is a stretch, at best, and very much depends on how the electoral system manufactures majorities–not only for Conservatives overall but also for the SNP among Westminster constituencies within Scotland.
Nonetheless, the claims in the LSE blog piece are somewhat hard to swallow. The main argument is that at 10:00 p.m., when polls closed, only the seats were mentioned. The votes did not come till 5:00 a.m., they claim. Anthony B. Masters has already shown that is not actually true, in a really excellent rebuttal. I won’t repeat Masters many points regarding misleading evidence that the LSE blog authors present to make their case.
The deeper issue here is that the exit poll is bound to be more accurate for seats–the initial projection almost nailed the result for the UK as a whole–than for votes. The voting estimates are subject to more error, because of uncertainty about turnout. Moreover, seats are the currency of power. Votes are relevant as a “currency of legitimacy” (as Jonathan Hopkin put it on Twitter), which is important for the subsequent narratives and intraparty soul-searching for the losers. That is, however, very much the kind of stuff that can only happen once the full results are known (not that it stops the media talking heads from engaging in speculation all night long). Basically, it is just very odd to slam as “biased” the media for reporting what was proven to be an actually accurate projection of the one thing the poll was designed to do and that matters most on election night–who won the most seats, was it a majority, and if so, how big?
Besides, as Masters notes in his rebuttal, it is not even true that votes were not being reported all night long. They simply are subject to more revisions as the picture gets clearer because, as noted above, the vote estimate is subject to more error.
Finally, I’d note that it could be much worse. In US elections, the topic of votes hardly comes up in the media, particularly for congressional elections. Even if you stayed up till 5:00 a.m. on election night (not that I ever have), you would not hear what percentage of the House votes each party had.