As I have said many times before, in the US the official election results seems to come almost as an afterthought. Well before that final certification, various media outlets ‘call’ the result, in other words say that they know for sure what the outcome is going to be and these verdicts are taken as definitive. Some of them ‘project’ what they think the result will be based on the data they have but this represents a lower level of confidence.
The Associated Press has the reputation of being the most reliable source when it comes to calling the result and is the equivalent of the fat lady singing. They were the first to definitively say that Donald Trump won the 2016 election, making that call at 2:29 am in the early hours of the morning after voting had ended. So what is the AP and how does it do its work? This article provides a pretty good window into its operations on election night.
The Associated Press has called U.S. elections since 1848, when it used a new technology, the telegraph, to declare Zachary Taylor the next president of the United States.
In 1846, five daily newspapers in New York City pooled their resources to cover the Mexican-American War. The result of this cooperative effort eventually became known as the Associated Press, a not-for-profit agency that provides news coverage to its member organizations. At first its members were newspapers, then radio stations, TV networks, websites, and tech platforms. Today there are 248 AP bureaus in ninety-nine countries, comprising editors, reporters, photographers, and support staff. In 2019, the AP produced two thousand stories and three thousand photos every day.
Here’s how Julie Pace, the AP’s Washington bureau chief, and Stephen Ohlemacher, the AP’s election-decision editor, describe the process.
As the day turns to night, things will start moving quickly. Polls will begin to close on the East Coast, and for some states that are very blue or very red, the AP will likely declare Trump or Biden the winner of that state—and start tallying up the expected Electoral College votes.
“We have to have such an incredibly high degree of certainty that we are saying, ‘This person has won,’” Ohlemacher says. “We are not projecting that they have won; we’re not predicting that they have won. We don’t do likely winners. We are making a declaration.”
So how does the AP make this determination? “In the simplest terms, we declare a winner once we come to the conclusion that the trailing candidate will not catch the leader,” Ohlemacher says. “To do that, we have to take every single piece of information that we have in making that declaration, and that starts well before Election Day.”
Some states establish a threshold that will trigger an automatic recanvas or recount. (In Michigan, for instance, a recount is triggered if a candidate wins by fewer than two thousand votes.) If the margin falls in that window, the AP won’t call the race. If the race is close but doesn’t meet the recount threshold for that state, the agency looks at other factors, like the number of votes still outstanding from mail-in ballots and whether it’s a swing area. For each race, Ohlemacher takes his team’s result to a team of top editors, including Pace.
AP is using a new tool called VoteCast to help in making a more accurate determination.
This is basically the AP’s new version of exit polling—a way to ask 140,000 people, starting October 28 via phone and online surveys, if they voted, for whom they cast their ballot, and why. Until the invention of VoteCast in 2018, AP reporters asked people leaving their polling place for whom they voted. This year marks the first time VoteCast is being deployed in a presidential race. VoteCast is more effective than traditional exit polling for capturing early, mail-in, and absentee voters, making it a better tool for 2020, when more than half of the electorate is expected to vote before Election Day.
On November 3, the staff working with the AP’s VoteCast data will confine themselves to a so-called quarantine room, prohibited from sharing that information with anyone before 5:00 p.m. EST. (After the 1980 presidential election, media outlets struck a handshake agreement that they wouldn’t declare the winner in a state before its polls closed.) Once the VoteCast staff are free to roam the newsroom, the AP editorial team can start reporting on trends in that data, like the issues that were most important to voters. They won’t report on what VoteCast may be saying about Trump or Biden leading in any state.
The AP is saying all the right things about being aware of the dangers in this election that many observers have warned about.
But to the point the letter makes about the media’s race to be first, Ohlemacher stresses that the AP’s goal is accuracy at all costs. “We’re journalists. Everyone wants to be first. But being first is a far distant second priority to us than being accurate,” he says. “We understand what’s going on in this country and we understand that folks may not have as much faith in our institutions as they once had. We are committed to making sure we provide accurate information to them on Election Night. If that means we have to wait, and if that means we’re not first, that’s perfectly okay.”
I for one will be looking to see what the AP says about each race, rather than any of the other major media. Let’s hope that other media outlets follow AP’s lead and not jump the gun.