Lalley: Election Day memories in the newsroom punctuated by late nights, pizza and sleeping under a desk

The excitement of months of work culminates in a few hours of chaos and remarkable moments of history.

Davison County voters walk into Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School in Mitchell in a previous election.
Chris Huber / Republic

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — I love the smell of an election in the morning.

Smells like … freedom.

Apologies to Robert Duvall’s portrayal of the war-obsessed helicopter commander in "Apocalypse Now."

When you’re a journalist, elections are special days, and not just because there’s usually pizza and you have to work late.

The first election night that I reported for a daily newspaper was 1994, when Newt Gingrich rallied a new generation of Republicans to take control of the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years.


It’s an odd thing to say, but the enormity of that night didn’t really sink in at the time. I was young, caught up in the excitement of the newsroom and focused on not screwing up my assignment for the evening.

My job was reporting and writing short stories about key legislative races in Iowa, where Republicans were also sweeping out Democrats to take control of the House of Representatives.

We didn’t have to worry about a website in 1994, just getting that print paper reported, laid out and slapped on the press by midnight. I remember watching the massive machinery churn to life, the sound, the everpresent aroma of ink and the seeming chaos that eventually produced a newspaper.

We grabbed early copies and headed to a nearby pub for some food and drink. The collection of reporters and editors carefully paged through the first edition (known as the “bulldog”) looking for typos or adjustments for the final.

It was an impressive introduction to one of journalism’s romantic traditions.

I loved it.

Election nights punctuate much of my journalism memories.

I was in Des Moines when Pat Buchanan nearly defeated Bob Dole in the 1996 Iowa Caucuses, where we rubbed elbows with the nation's political elite of the time.


There was the hectic night of the Bush-Gore deadlock, where entire front pages were torn up and rebuilt.

Then things got a little crazy.

The epic campaigns of 2002 and 2004, when South Dakota held the keys to control of the U.S. Senate, were as stressful and tense as any day in the newsroom, not just election night.

In 2002, when Sen. Tim Johnson held off then Rep. John Thune by about 500 votes, I mostly paced around the newsroom, obsessively refreshing the secretary of state’s website hoping for the last lingering precincts to report.

The only sleep I got was a few minutes here or there, curled up with a jacket under my desk.

We had breakfast brought in — pizza seemed like a bad idea at that point — and put together a special section when the race was called that morning.

It was much the same in 2004, when Thune came back and took out then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in what had been months and months of hand-to-hand political combat.

These electoral moments are burned into my brain, maybe like trauma.


Tuesday is another election night and things have changed, of course. That’s not a bad thing, just different. Covering an election in 2022 is like putting together a three-dimensional puzzle with multiple platforms and channels all headed in the same direction.

I still relish elections as historic benchmarks to witness and in some small way contribute as a journalist.

To me, that will always feel like … freedom.

Patrick Lalley is the engagement editor and reporter for Sioux Falls Live. Reach him at
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