Before, on and after Election Day, thousands of Americans, many of them volunteers, will gather, process and count ballots for president and for national, state and local offices. That collective effort is the wizard behind the curtain of a core function of U.S. democracy — picking elected leaders.
Similarly, news outlets call elections based on a combined effort involving statistical analysis, vote counts, surveys, exit polls and old-fashioned reporting. With varying rules and processes for how states conduct elections and tens of millions of advance ballots expected to be cast due to the COVID-19 pandemic, major news companies like ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, NBC and The Associated Press are telling their audiences not to expect clear-cut results on election night.
Eventually, however, the national media will call or project winners for thousands of races across the country.
Here’s how they’ll do it.
Exit polls, surveys and ballot types
Decision desk staff at the AP and national TV news networks work separately but use similar methods to call elections, as Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and senior vice president explained during an Oct. 14 briefing hosted by PEN America. For the 2020 general election it won’t be a race among the news outlets to, say, be the first to call a state for a presidential candidate: “I can assure you — I can speak on behalf of CNN, but I suspect I’m speaking on behalf of others that we are not competing with each other. The numbers are going to dictate when we make a projection,” Feist said.
ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC are part of the National Election Pool, which delivers exit polls conducted by Edison Research to those organizations. Exit pollsters use written questionnaires at voting sites to find out which candidates voters selected. During the 2016 general election, Edison polled 85,000 people at 1,000 locations nationwide and conducted phone surveys with 16,000 advance voters.
The AP and Fox News left the National Election Pool after 2016. To replace traditional exit polling, those outlets partnered to develop a proprietary survey along with NORC, formerly known as the National Opinion Research Center, at the University of Chicago. The method surveys thousands of randomly selected voters in the days leading up to an election and combines that information with poll results from online panels to get a sense of who voters are and which candidates they’re leaning toward. During the 2018 elections, for example, the AP conducted 139,000 interviews with registered voters in every state.
The AP also doesn’t project outcomes — it calls elections.
“When we declare a winner, it’s our final word,” AP Deputy Managing Editor for Operations David Scott said during a Sept. 23 briefing hosted by the American Press Institute. “We don’t make projections at the Associated Press. We don’t make predictions. There are no apparent winners or likely winners when we make a race call.”
The AP will declare winners in more than 7,000 races around the country after Election Day. The standard is simple: If there is a path to victory for only one candidate, the AP calls the race for that candidate. Its call on the presidential race will take into account on-the-ground reporting — roughly 5,000 AP reporters will fan out across the country and feed information to a core team of 60 analysts — in addition to statistical modeling, pre-election polling, voting history in polling districts, vote counts and votes left to be counted.
At least 61 million advance ballots have been cast for the 2020 general election so far, according to the U.S. Elections Project led by University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald. Advance ballots include mail-in and absentee ballots and early in-person voting. Roughly 140 million Americans cast votes during the 2016 general election and 41% of them voted before Election Day, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal clearinghouse of state-by-state voting information. Of those who voted early in 2016, 17% voted in-person at polling sites while 24% mailed their ballots.
Exit polls may be less predictive this year, as decision desk editors at major media outlets estimate between 50% and 60% of ballots will be cast before Nov. 3. Decision desk editors also expect overall turnout to be higher than in 2016. It’s unclear whether those additional voters will show up in the advance voting numbers or whether Election Day turnout will also be higher, as CNN Politics Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta noted during the PEN America briefing.
It’s also a near certainty that hundreds of thousands of votes will come in after Nov. 3 in the form of provisional ballots and mail ballots that arrive after Election Day in states where that’s allowed.
Provisional ballots most often come into play when officials question a voter’s registration status. A voter would receive a provisional ballot if their registration status is unclear. Those ballots are kept separate from regular ballots and counted if election officials later determine the voter is eligible.
Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming don’t offer provisional ballots because they offer same-day voter registration. North Dakota doesn’t require voters to register, so election officials there also don’t offer provisional ballots.
“In Ohio, there’s going to be well over 100,000 provisional ballots — there always is,” AP Election Decision Editor Stephen Ohlemacher said during the API briefing. In 2016, three-fourths of all provisional ballots were from four states — Arizona, California, New York and Ohio, according to the EAC.
Accuracy > speed
Major TV networks yo-yoed viewers with their Election Day projections following the 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The race came down to an extraordinarily close tally in Florida.
NBC went first, declaring Florida for Gore as the hour approached 8 p.m. EST. Most other TV networks soon did the same. CNN walked back its projection around 10 p.m. Fox News called Florida for Bush at 2:16 a.m. Other networks soon did the same — the AP didn’t. Gore conceded the race to Bush but an hour later retracted his concession. There was no winner on election night, nor the day after. Hanging chads and a landmark Supreme Court decision were to come, ultimately delivering the presidency to Bush.
The 2004 presidential race between Bush and John Kerry also came down to one state: Ohio. TV networks were more cautious on election night than they had been four years prior. The AP, for its part, didn’t call the race until the next morning, after its reporting revealed Kerry couldn’t catch Bush in the Buckeye State.
“We had reporters all over Ohio that Wednesday morning checking with counties everywhere to find out how many provisional ballots they had left to count,” Ohlemacher said. “And when we came to a conclusion at about 11 a.m. on Wednesday morning that there simply were not enough ballots left for Kerry to catch Bush, we declared Bush the winner of Ohio and re-elected president.”
Too close — or early — to call
Major news outlets today are reminding audiences not to expect a presidential winner on Nov. 3. (Twitter, Facebook and Google will flag or remove content from candidates who prematurely claim victory.) No matter how sure an outlet is of its projections or calls, state officials — usually the state’s Secretary of State — need to certify election results before they’re official.
Whether news outlets can reliably call a state on election night will, in part, come down to when that state began processing its advance ballots. The sooner state law allows election officials to process ballots, the more likely that state will have a large number of ballots tallied by Nov. 3.
One plausible result on election night will be that the presidential race and other high-profile races will be too close or too early to call. For the AP, that means data is still coming in and more votes will need to be counted before paths to victory can be eliminated for all but one candidate. For example, there may be enough votes outstanding for a candidate to close an election night gap.
Take the 2018 Arizona senate race between Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally. On election night, McSally was winning by about 13,000 votes. But the AP and other outlets didn’t call the race until almost a week later — for Sinema. By the time mail and early ballots were counted, she had won by a 2.4% margin.
Still, a vote count can reach its end and be too close to call. Imagine a tight race in one of 21 states that have a mandatory recount law. Several of those states specify a margin of 0.25% or 0.5% to trigger a recount. Or, a vote count might appear done but officials can’t say for sure there are no ballots left to be counted — think states that accept mail ballots arriving after Election Day. If those or any other situations arise that make a race too close or too early to call, the AP will push a news alert saying so.
Local media: ‘Report the heck out of it’
Because the U.S. has a decentralized system for federal elections, local reporters have educated and continue to educate their audiences on the rules, quirks and court cases relevant to voting in their states and districts.
That reporting is arguably more important than whether this or that candidate is ahead in the polls.
“For local reporters, the number one thing you can do is know your rules and report the heck out of it and explain the heck out of it,” Scott said. “What’s taking place in your community? What’s taking place in your state? How are the rules changing? How are they different this year? How are they the same this year? Do a lot of explanatory reporting, a lot of explanatory storytelling ahead of time. Make that part of your coverage. That, to me, is so much more important and interesting than horse race numbers.”
For more on covering the 2020 general election, check out our recent coverage on preventing an election night nightmare, voter intimidation at the polls, how America picks its president plus 10 tips for journalists covering the 2020 presidential election.
Correction: This piece originally stated the AP did not call Florida for Al Gore in 2000; the AP did initially predict Florida for Gore. We regret the error. Corrected November 6, 2020.