How U.S. networks (and the CBC) will call a winner on election night — or later
Projecting who will be the next president has never been more challenging — or important
Twenty years ago, major U.S. networks incorrectly called Florida for Al Gore, projecting the Democratic vice-president as the winner against George W. Bush, the Republican challenger, in the 2000 presidential election.
Within a few hours, that projection had to be retracted. It was then reversed and Bush was projected as the winner of the state and the next president. But by then, Gore had closed the gap to just a few hundred votes. Weeks of a deeply divisive and contested recount followed, until a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to it and handed the White House to Bush.
Twenty years later, and facing the prospect of a drawn-out and disputed vote count, U.S. networks are taking steps to ensure they won't make the same kind of mistake again.
Calling an American election is no simple matter. Unlike in Canada, where Elections Canada administers the federal election across the country, there is no national organization that runs the U.S. vote or even tallies the results on election day.
Instead, each state is responsible for administering the election within its borders. Each state has different rules about how to vote, when the votes are counted and how the results are reported.
U.S. networks have long projected winners before all the votes are counted — a necessity in a country where the count can take weeks to complete (even when it isn't in the grips of a global pandemic). In 2016, the count wasn't finalized until December.
But this time will be different — because a majority of voters are expected to cast their ballots either before election day or through the mail. Some of those mail-in ballots won't be counted until after election day is over.
How CBC News will call this election
Projecting election winners before all the counting is finished is standard practice in democracies around the world, as the result is often clear before all the votes are counted.
CBC News has a Decision Desk that is responsible for projecting the winners of provincial and federal elections in this country. It took only 10 minutes after the first results were reported on Monday night for the CBC News Decision Desk to project a Saskatchewan Party majority government. It was just over an hour after the polls closed before John Horgan's New Democrats were declared to have secured a majority in British Columbia last Saturday.
Projecting the final outcome is a big operation that starts with getting the results in the first place.
"We're part of a consortium of media organizations that, pre-COVID, sent monitors to every single riding on election night," said Meg Banks, senior producer at the Decision Desk. "They work with elections officials and call in vote counts poll by poll so that all media outlets get reliable numbers at the same time. We know when advance and mail votes are counted or not counted. And all the numbers are vetted by several people before they hit our systems."
As the results come in, editors — each assigned to about a dozen ridings — analyze the numbers.
"Each riding is assigned a set of mathematical parameters that the vote count must reach before we will make a projection," said Banks. "We plug that information into our special software that monitors the vote count and the vote yet to come, and once it's reached, at least two people sign off on every projection we make."
Because of the unique nature of the U.S. electoral system, it's not feasible to have the same sort of operation in place for a U.S. election. There, the pressures are enormous — which is why U.S. networks pool their resources in their country as Canadian media organizations do here.
In 2020, CBC News will be following the same procedure it has in past U.S. elections — by reporting the projected winner in individual states and across the nation once a majority of the five major U.S. networks (CBS, CNN, NBC, ABC and Fox) have reached a conclusion.
So how will these networks call the vote?
Exit polls without polling the exits
In past elections, when the majority of Americans voted on election day in person, U.S. decision desks would lean heavily on exit polls. These are surveys conducted across the country as voters exit their local polling stations. These are supplemented by standard telephone polling to interview people who voted by mail.
In 2016, about 40 per cent of Americans voted early or by mail (split roughly evenly). In this election, estimates put the number of early and mail ballots at well over 80 million. That could represent more than 60 per cent of the total turnout in 2016.
That's why Edison Research — which provides data and projections to the National Election Pool (NEP) consortium that includes NBC, CNN, ABC and CBS — has boosted the amount of telephone polling it's doing in this campaign to get a better idea of what to expect from the mail ballots.
That's in addition to exit polling at early voting stations and in 700 locations across the United States on election day, said Joe Lenski, executive vice-president at Edison Research.
But Edison and the NEP are not the only games in town this year. The Associated Press (the U.S. election results provider for CBC News) is doing its own version of an exit poll with a massive online survey for Fox News and other media outlets.
This extra source of data concerning voter behaviour will be a useful tool in this election, making it possible to check one set of numbers against the other.
Tracking the vote, county by county
The telephone and exit polling is the starting point for making projections on election night. The results are gathered in a number of ways — including through state websites and county election officials providing counts that are individually phoned in to Edison, AP and the networks.
Sometimes they have to go to great lengths to get that data.
"One of my favourite stories is about a county in Kansas that just does a picture of a whiteboard posted to Facebook," David Scott, deputy managing editor at AP, said on a webinar organized by PEN America. "Okay, that's how you want to report your vote — we'll find it and we'll get it and we'll put it into our system."
These results are then fed into models grounded in the polling data that are updated and adjusted as actual votes are counted. If the data coming in from individual precincts and counties is representative of other precincts and counties in a given state, the results can be used to estimate results in other demographically and politically similar areas that have yet to report any results.
Where the mail ballots aren't being counted, the telephone polls will be used to make estimates of what that outstanding vote might look like. These estimates will be compared to the actual results from mail ballots where those are being counted, and adjusted accordingly.
Reports from individual counties of how many uncounted ballots remain — when and where that information is available — can be used to help inform estimates of what impact the mail ballots could have on the race.
Trying to figure out how many ballots have yet to be counted will be difficult. NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd, speaking on a panel last week, said that his network and others will be relying on estimates of how many votes still have to be counted, since that will be important in figuring out whether a trailing candidate can plausibly make up the gap.
Projecting the winner
With actual results starting to be fed into the system and the telephone and exit polling being used to fill in the gaps, the decision desks can start making calls.
The teams are experienced and well-rehearsed. Dan Merkle, who oversees ABC's decision desk, said on the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast that his team has been testing and practicing since July, increasing those rehearsals to three or four times per week as election day approaches.
Scott said AP's team includes a large number of full-time employees with expertise in the minutiae of U.S. elections.
"We have a deep understanding of the rules in every county, the rules in every state, what their processes are," he said. "We have personal relationships with these town clerks and these county election officials that have been built up over many, many years.
"If you want to know the type of voting machines in Cuyahoga County in a particular precinct, the guys in AP elections research, they can tell you."
Some states will be projected as soon as the polls close, based on the results of telephone and exit polls. This would only be done in states where the result is a foregone conclusion — states like California for the Democrats or West Virginia for the Republicans.
But calls in states with closer margins will take longer. Merkle says that ABC's models require 99.5 per cent confidence before a projection can be made. According to Todd, NBC is being more careful in this election and has increased the margins they need to see before making a call due to the uncertainty surrounding mail ballots.
"We're planning to be very cautious," Lenski of Edison Research told CBC News.
Unless the margins are razor thin, it will be possible to project the winners in some states on election night. Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Texas are expected to report relatively early. These states have experience with counting lots of early and absentee ballots and are able to begin processing ballots before election day.
States like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — the decisive states that won Trump the election in 2016 — are expected to report much more slowly.
While it's possible viewers will have a good idea of where things are headed on election night, that doesn't necessarily mean the networks will be able to call a winner. The decision desks do not project states whose polls have yet to close, nor do they extrapolate trends from states that are reporting results to states that aren't.
Projected Biden wins in Texas and Florida, for example, would make it virtually impossible for him to lose the presidency. But unless the decision desks have projected enough states to give a candidate 270 electoral college votes, no official call about the winner of the election will be made.
So it could take some time. In this election, there isn't much to be gained by being first. But with the president himself questioning whether the count will be fair, there's lots to lose by being wrong.