How is the vote counted on election night? The Associated Press explains. (Oct. 26)
Unpredictability has been a hallmark of one of the most tumultuous presidential campaigns in recent political history, and there’s no reason to think that won’t be true on Election Night. Who knows what will happen?
Nobody really, and don’t trust anyone who says they do. There are, however, measures that television networks are taking to prepare. Lots of them, in fact.
“There’s no way to know, at this moment, how it’s going to play out, but we’re prepared for every scenario,” Rashida Jones, senior vice president for NBC News and MSNBC, said. “We have a tremendous responsibility on election night and will be completely transparent with our viewers.”
For the latest results on Election Night:results.usatoday.com
There have been enough predictions of a lengthy vote-counting process that, if everything is decided the night of Nov. 3, we’ll all feel like the weather forecaster the day after the hurricane missed your town. Still, it pays to be ready.
“I think it would be a serious mistake to assume that there will be a disaster,” said Chris Stirewalt, the politics editor for Fox News. “But I also think it would be a serious mistake not to prepare for a disaster.
“This is hillbilly optimism, which is you hope for the best but you plan for the worst. That’s what we’ve done.”
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How TV news networks crunch the numbers on election night
Political editors and directors who oversee politics coverage at networks like CBS News and Fox News, among others, talked about their plans going into the election. Of course anything can happen, particularly in a volatile race.
“I think this year has taught us that we need to be flexible on a lot of things that are out of our hands,” Caitlin Conant, the political director for CBS News, said. “This is one of them.”
Every network has plans in place to project winners, like they do every election year. Each has a data desk, a panel of numbers crunchers that operates independently of the newsroom. Using data such as exit polling, telephone sampling and other methods, those data teams keep a running count of votes counted, and look for patterns in the results still to come.
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“They don’t care about the spin,” Rick Klein, the political director for ABC News, said of the team at his network. “They don’t care about concessions or declaration of victory or anecdotes. They’re (only) looking at the numbers.”
Any Election Night is by necessity a work in progress. Certainly expectations were upended in 2016, when Donald Trump surprised many so-called experts by winning the presidency. Now he’s running behind Democratic opponent Joe Biden in several national polls — as he was Hillary Clinton four years ago. There are differences, but it’s all volatile. Due to several factors, viewers who turn to any media outlet looking to learn who won might be in for a long night.
Several nights, maybe.
“Obviously it is unclear who’s going to win this race,” said Sally Buzbee, the executive editor of the Associated Press, the newsgathering organization that makes projections for lots of media outlets (including USA TODAY and 260 sites that are part of the USA TODAY Network). “I know what the polling shows, but it is unclear whether it’ll be a close race or a blowout. That’s why we’re not sure how long it will take.”
“Obviously it is unclear who’s going to win this race. I know what the polling shows, but it is unclear whether it’ll be a close race or a blowout. That’s why we’re not sure how long it will take.”
Sally Buzbee, the executive editor of the Associated Press
The particulars of projecting a winner are not complicated: “When you start forecasting results,” Stirewalt said, “the question is, how many votes are out there and how many does the candidate who is behind need in order to pull ahead?”
The details are more complex. It’s not just waiting for mail-in votes from some states. Rural counties tend to report results later. Bad weather could drive down in-person voting, which would have to be part of the equation. But eventually, whether on election night or later, the numbers will point to a winner.
“We only call a winner when there is no legal path for the trailing candidate to catch up,” Buzbee said.
If a winner doesn’t emerge on Election Night, that’s not evidence of fraud
However long it takes, whatever you may have heard, no matter who you heard it from, a long vote count isn’t evidence of fraud. (Neither is a short one.)
“We have to prepare for the possibility that this is not settled on election night — and that in fact it isn’t actually indicative of anything being wrong,” Klein said. “That’s just the process, and we have to prepare our viewers for that accordingly and not create any sort of false expectations.”
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Just because the process may take longer this year, or who is leading may shift as votes are counted, doesn’t mean there’s a problem. In 2000, it was December before George W. Bush was declared the winner after the U.S. Supreme Court halted recounting votes in Florida and Al Gore conceded. In 2004, John Kerry didn’t concede to Bush until the day after the election.
The nation survived. So don’t panic, and don’t listen to people who suggest that you should.
“If anyone — a news organization, a political candidate — if anyone is saying that if we don’t know on election night something’s wrong, that’s just not true,” Klein said. “It isn’t.”
The surge in early voting will affect how long it takes to count votes
Disinformation is just one in the bag full of wrenches 2020 has thrown into the machinery. The biggest, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic. The fears of big crowds at polling places, not having your vote counted or facing intimidation have contributed to record early voting.
That fundamental shift — Buzbee said more than 50% of the total votes may be cast before Election Day — will have an effect on Election Night.
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“So many states have changed the way they allow people to vote,” Klein said. “So many states have changed the way that they count the vote. And just the white-hot political rhetoric that’s flying around all of it means we cover the story that’s in front of us.”
Journalists and viewers may have to be patient on election night
Conant knows waiting is difficult.
“I think the media has a responsibility to prepare the public that they may need to have some patience, and they may not know the answer on Election Night,” she said. “I’ve said this before — it’s personally not a strength of mine, I do not have a ton of patience. I think that the public tends to not have a lot of patience, either.”
Better get some.
Stirewalt has recommendations on that front.
“The first thing to do is stay calm and keep your perspective. … You just have to see what happens,” he said. “The truth about every election is most of the conventional wisdom will be right, some of the conventional wisdom will be wrong. Which way, how much, which part — you don’t know. That’s the fun. That’s what makes it exciting.
“We’re running a real-time social-psychological experiment on 150 million or so people. That’s just got to be interesting.”
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Claims of ‘fake news’ make the media’s job more difficult
Another complicating factor: It’s not just that more people are voting early. It’s how they’re voting that might cause confusion.
“There is empirical evidence that there is a difference between who votes by mail and who doesn’t,” Buzbee said. “It does look like Democrats tend to vote by mail more.”
That means if Trump jumps out to a big lead early, it doesn’t mean he has won the election. It doesn’t mean he’s lost, either. It just means that, depending on how individual states count early votes, it will take time to tally everything.
That’s not fraud. It’s math.
Which brings up another potential problem: Just because networks make a projection doesn’t mean a partisan audience will believe it. Fake news and all that. All any reputable news organization can do is report the facts.
“On Election Night itself we just have to be extremely transparent and clear and explain to viewers what we know, why we know it and potentially, more importantly, what we don’t know and why we don’t know it,” Conant said, “so that we are very clear with what is happening throughout the night, and potentially days.”
In this combination of file photos, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on March 12, 2020, left, and President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington on April 5, 2020. (Photo: AP)
Will audiences hang on every detail while votes are counted, even if the vote count drags on? Stirewalt believes they will.
“If we’re 10 days into a count, I don’t think we’re going to have to scrounge up intensity,” he said, laughing. “If we’re in an election that is that close for that long and we are down to that point, I don’t think we’ll need to gin up any interest. I think it will be a self-licking ice cream cone.”
Tasty. Let’s just hope there’s not a meltdown.
Reach Goodykoontz at [email protected] Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk.
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