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How the Associated Press relies on ‘facts and math’ to call election results

The pandemic and the potential for record voter turnout are setting the stage for an election like no other we have seen. But what happens after the polling places close? The NewsHour has always relied upon the Associated Press to call race winners. Amna Nawaz reports on the news organization’s process for evaluating and announcing election results.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The pandemic and potential record turnout are making for an election like never before.

    But what happens after the votes are cast?

    Amna Nawaz has more on how and when winners from each race will be called.

  • Robert MacNiel:

    Welcome to this special election report.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    On Election Day, viewers like you tune in for the answer to one key question: Who won? This election, there's some uncertainty about when we will have those results.

  • Sally Buzbee:

    It's really sort of math and analysis. That's the way that I think of it. It really is two plus two equals four.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sally Buzbee is the executive editor for the Associated Press.

    The AP has been counting the vote for almost two centuries.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Now the Associated Press, we can report, has officially declared…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The "NewsHour" has relied on the AP count since the program began in 1975. Today, more than 1, 500 news organizations do the same.

  • Sally Buzbee:

    We have actually been doing this since 1848, when we used literally the Pony Express, literally telegraph lines to gather the vote from the Western states and report it for Eastern newspapers. I mean, that's one of the first things that AP did.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Voting's come a long way since then, but at the AP, which is covering the count and calling winners for about 7,000 races this year, the fundamentals haven't changed.

  • Sally Buzbee:

    We treat every single one of these race calls with the same level of standard.

    What we do is that we have for each state a race-caller who has done a lot of research, who has done a lot of studying, who understands our analytical models, an analyst based in Washington who is helping them look through the data. And then we have two decision desk editors who sign off on essentially every major call.

    It involves a lot of people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What's different this year? Tens of millions of people have already voted, continuing a trend set in motion decades ago.

    Back in 1972, only about 5 percent of Americans voted early. By 2016, roughly 40 percent voted before Election Day. This year, some estimate that number could reach 60 percent, meaning more Americans voting before Election Day than on it.

    How and when those votes are counted depends on which state you're in. And the sheer volume could slow systems down, leading to later calls.

  • Sally Buzbee:

    The weirdness of American politics is that many states actually count the in person on-the-day-voting first. And that's what they release first. And then they go back and they count the early voting.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, for example, don't begin counting any ballots until Election Day. Michigan begins counting the day before Election Day.

    Florida and Arizona both begin counting ballots two to three weeks before Election Day. And some states, like Ohio and Minnesota, accept ballots after Election Day, as long as they're postmarked by November 3.

    I think it's been true in elections past that some races are called right after polls are closed, and some take many more hours or even days to call.

    Do you expect that to be the same this year, or do you expect more races to take longer to call?

  • Sally Buzbee:

    It's a very good question.

    I mean, generally speaking, I would say that the trend is going to be exactly like in the past, OK? The single biggest indicator is, if a race is close, it is going to almost always take longer to call. If a race is not close at all, we're not going to call any winner until we are sure that there is no path for the trailing candidate to catch up.

    So, if you have got a lot of uncounted early vote, that could, in fact, impact. You might hold off on a race call until that early vote is counted and released.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, the changes in how Americans are voting mean some changes to what you will hear during our election coverage tomorrow night.

    As votes are counted, the "NewsHour" will report how much of the expected vote is in. That's an estimate, based on historical, registration, and early voting data. And even that number will change, as more of the vote is counted.

    Also, instead of exit polls, which were limited to in person interviews, as voters left the polls, we will report information from VoteCast. That right there is a series of voter surveys of about 140,000 people leading up to Election Day.

    So, that includes in person, early and mail-in voters.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Barack Obama may be on the brink of becoming the first Black president of the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Historically, the hallmark of election night has been calling the big race, and even though there have been years that hasn't happened on the night…

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Earlier in the evening, Florida was declared for Al Gore.

  • Person:

    That's right.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    And then they changed their minds, and, oh, my goodness, mercy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In 2000, 2004, and 2016:

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Donald Trump is the next president of the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's still unclear how long it will take to determine the 2020 presidential winner.

  • Sally Buzbee:

    I think it really depends on how close the race is. In 2004, the winner was not known until the next day. Obviously, in 2000, the winner wasn't known until December.

    And, even in 2016, we called Donald Trump the winner, I think, at like 2:30 in the morning on Wednesday, right? So, some people have gone to bed. My parents had gone to bed, for example.

    But it is — if it is a race where one person is very far ahead, then it is more likely that it will be called on election night or shortly after midnight.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The Democrats are trying to rig this election.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And despite President Trump and others sowing doubt in the election process, Buzbee says AP's record speaks for itself.

  • Sally Buzbee:

    We have called the winner of every presidency without fear or favor or partisanship or any opinion of any person in our organization.

    We have called it on the facts and math year after year after year. This is not a magic show. This has been based on facts and math and state law. And all we're doing is reporting what's happening.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Work done with caution, precision, and, most importantly, reflecting the will of American voters.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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