How do networks call the election before all the votes are counted?

Voting patterns can actually be quite predictable.
Voting patterns can actually be quite predictable.
Image: AP Photo/Marco Garcia
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Editor’s note: This story is from 2016. Read about how TV networks will call the 2020 elections

It’s finally here: election day in the US.

Americans all over the country will be making their way to the polls today. And, in just a few short hours, we should know who the next president of the United States will be.

Conservative pundit Erick Erickson has said that the race could be called as early as 9:05pm Eastern time, even while voters in the Midwest and West are still casting their ballots.

So, how does the news media call the election before all the votes are counted? And how do they avoid blown calls, like the famously premature calling of the Florida vote in 2000 for Al Gore, and then for George W. Bush?

Most major news networks rely on the same basic voting data to make calls and projections state-by-state. The patterns in that data may suggest clear winners long before all the votes have been counted.

The Associated Press and the US’s five major news networks—ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC—are all members of a consortium called the National Election Pool, which has provided election night information including the vote count, analysis, and projections since 2003.

These networks use what are called “decision desks,” which employ dozens of statisticians and pollsters to project winners based on their analyses and the new organizations’ proprietary statistical models, according to the New York Times.

They’re fueled by data from three main sources:

  1. Exit poll interviews with voters, conducted by Edison Research, which provide snapshots of voter turnout in different parts of the country throughout the day. The polls capture voter demographics and reasons for supporting a candidate, among other details.
  2. Vote counts by precinct—the smallest level election results are reported at—which are released by election officials.
  3. Votes by county, which are tabulated by the Associated Press. The news organization says it deploys an army of over 4,000 stringers—or freelance reporters—to county election centers on election night. When the first polls close, these stringers begin phoning in the raw votes as they are reported by the counties to AP election centers around the country where they are entered into an electronic system, which tabulates the results. Some states and counties also display their results online, which the AP’s team monitors and factors into its system. The system sends the results to the networks and to AP clients including the New York Times and Google.

Most networks won’t make their official calls until after the polls are closed on election day, but news organizations use their models and expertise to begin parsing the data and finding patterns that may indicate state-by-state winners, such as strong voter turnout from a certain party, or a consistent boost in turnout that seems to favor a particular candidate.

“When we see a clear pattern such that someone may have taken an early lead, we’ll tell you that,” said Anthony Salvanto, elections director for CBS News. “When all the votes are counted, or it is clear to us that one candidate will win, then we make a projection.”

During the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton was declared the winner of Georgia and Virginia right after the polls closed in those states because she polled well ahead Bernie Sanders in the South, the New York Times pointed out. Sanders similarly was announced as the winner in his home state of Vermont before any results were released.

Networks such as CBS and CNN usually display election results in real time during their coverage. You may notice large vote counts in states such as Florida even though only 0% or 1% of precincts have reported. That’s because absentee ballots and early votes may be announced before results from Election Day are released, the New York Times reported. The number of precincts reporting, meanwhile, usually remains at zero until the votes casted on Election Day are counted.

You may also see some states show less than 100% reporting even after an election is over. That’s because the process of transmitting precinct results isn’t perfect. It’s done manually, according to the AP, often using a thumb drive from an optical scanner or by scanning actual ballots at the county election center. Sometimes ballots or cartridges to get left behind at a polling place so there is a delay in counting those votes. Some results may not be sent immediately because of bad thumb drives, poor wifi connections, or other reasons. In some small precincts, there may literally be no votes for a particular party, which could cause confusion over whether that precinct has reported.

There’s some variation between news organizations in methodology on when to call the winner. In 2008, the AP waited until 11pm Eastern time, when the last ballots were casted on the West Coast, to call the US presidential race for Barack Obama even though it was clear shortly before that that he had won. By 9:30pm, Obama had clinched the swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, which set him up to hit 270 electoral votes. MSNBC began celebrating minutes before the official call, the Washington Post wrote.

Over the past few elections, the AP has called the election within an hour of the last poll closures.

In the 1984, the presidential race was called for Ronald Reagan as early as 8pm Eastern time. But Congress argued such early projections depressed voter turnout in late-voting states. Networks have since held off on their projections.

Most news organization also don’t report on the exit poll data they receive during the day, for similar reasons.

However, in a shift this year, media outlets including Slate and Vice News will report on exit polls throughout the day today. They’re partnering with a startup called VoteCastr to gather and publish details on voter turnout and analysis of what it might mean for the overall election. Vice’s first update will be live streamed on at around 9am Eastern time, the publication said.

Neither Slate nor Vice will be making their own calls about the election.

All said and done, news networks are just trying to make sure they get the election results right, especially considering that the outcome will likely be scrutinized by Donald Trump’s camp in the event of a Clinton victory. (Trump has stoked fears of election-rigging, and hasn’t said whether he’ll accept the election results if Clinton wins.)

“Running the decision desk is basically like taking a math test,” Arnon Mishkin, director of Fox News’s decision desk, told the New York Times. “If you don’t get a good grade, 300 million people are going to know.”