Associated Press To Count The Votes On Election Day
On Tuesday, Nov. 2, some 100 million Americans will step into the voting booth. Collectively, they will make decisions that will determine who governs the United States for the next four years. Cumulatively, they will elect one president, 11 governors, 34 senators, 435 representatives, and nearly 6,000 legislators, judges and other state officeholders — as well as decide on a variety of economic and social issues on ballots across the country.
The Associated Press has been counting the vote since its founding in 1848, when Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party defeated Democrat Lewis Cass. This year, for the first time in decades, AP will be the only news organization collecting the vote for the media and delivering it to newspapers and broadcasters, including the television networks. It will be delivered in a variety of formats, by satellite and online.
The AP is the world's oldest and largest newsgathering organization, providing content to more than 15,000 news outlets with a daily reach of 1 billion people around the world. Its multimedia services are distributed by satellite and the Internet to more than 120 nations.
Here's an explanation of how the AP will provide results in 2004 with the speed and accuracy on which its members and subscribers have learned to rely.
Q: How does the vote count differ this time?
A: ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel and AP chose to disband Voter News Service — a POOL created in 1964 to collect election results, which was broadened in the early 1990s to conduct exit polls — following highly publicized failures in 2000 and 2002. The news organizations created the National Election Pool (NEP), and contracted with two veteran pollsters to conduct exit surveys. The networks turned to the AP for the job of vote counting. In the past, the participating news organizations received raw vote numbers from both VNS and the AP, and used one as a check against the accuracy of the other. Now they will rely on AP — the world's oldest and largest news cooperative — alone.
This year also marks the debut also of a new exit poll operation. AP is part of the National Election Pool, a consortium with the networks. NEP has hired two firms — Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International — to conduct these polls, which are so crucial in allowing AP to call landslide races early and to be able to tell in depth what was on the voters' minds. These firms polled successfully in the Kentucky and Mississippi governors' races in 2003, and throughout the early presidential primary season in 2004.
The networks and the AP will have access to the same data but each election operation will independently make its own call on all races. For the first time in a presidential race, the AP and its partners will refrain from making a call in any particular state until all the polls have closed.
Q: What is involved in AP's election coverage?
A: From before dawn on Nov. 2 and continuing for the next 20 hours or more, thousands of people will be working fulltime on behalf of the AP to report the election. From exit poll interviewers to exit poll analysts, from vote count stringers to vote entry clerks, from bureau chiefs in the states to supervisors in New York and Washington — all will be part of a precisely calibrated plan designed to report election results accurately.
Q: How will the votes be counted?
A: By 5 p.m. local time on Tuesday the first of nearly 5,000 stringers will have started to report to county election centers. When the first polls close, at 6 p.m. in Indiana and Kentucky, they'll be ready to start phoning in the raw vote as it is counted. They'll place their calls to one of AP's 16 vote collection centers, the largest of which is the Western Election Center in Spokane, Wash.
A total of 450 vote entry clerks will punch in the numbers on a computer screen and feed them onto the state and national election tables that will be seen in the newsrooms of AP's members.
The clerks are encouraged to ask questions to ensure accuracy. They'll ask the stringers whether there are problems in their county, question votes and precincts if results look suspect, and make sure that those working around them are asking questions, too.
The vote count and entry operation will continue in full swing across the 50 states and the District of Columbia all night, tapering down about 4 a.m. Wednesday morning and then picking up again at 9 a.m. so AP can chase down the final results and obtain 100 percent of the votes.
Q: Besides counting the votes, what else will AP be doing to in its election coverage?
A: Even before the first polls have opened at 6 a.m., the first of more than 1,500 exit poll interviewers hired by the National Election Pool's two polling firms will report for duty at randomly selected precincts.
In recent years, more voting has been
taking place before Election Day, so this year the exit poll operation
is being supplemented with telephone surveys conducted by the National
Election Pool in 13 states where absentee or early voting is most
popular. By 10 a.m., the interviewers will begin calling in with the
first of three reports they will file during the day. More than 300
operators will be stationed at phone centers to record their data.
After processing and quality control, the first wave of data will be
released in the early afternoon to AP and its exit poll partners.
At AP, two teams will look at the numbers. A "decision desk" will determine which races might be called at the time polls close. An analysis team will be examining the demographics, issues and other factors that made a difference in the elections.
Q: What happens at AP while the votes are coming in?
A: AP's state bureau chiefs are armed with on-the-ground knowledge of their territory that no other national news organization can match. They will be working with the "decision desk" in Washington to determine when the races in their state can be called. That team, headed by the Washington bureau chief, has the final signoff on all top of the ticket calls, including president. It was their decision in 2000 not to follow the pack and declare George W. Bush the victor in Florida on election night
Q: Based on election history, what is the best "guess estimate" for when the presidential race will be called by AP?
A: The AP will be working diligently to determine when the race can be called, but given the apparent closeness in so many battleground states, it's difficult to predict when. An earliest estimate is sometime between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., as the vote totals accumulate.
Q: What safeguards have been introduced to protect the vote collection system should problems arise from human or technical error?
A: A series of steps have been taken to safeguard the process, involving both technology and people. AP has built into the system a series of triggers to set off alerts in case of discrepancies or apparent inconsistencies with previous voting history. Historical data has been programmed in about registered and actual voters and past voting patterns. If a clerk enters numbers that show a significant disparity from expected patterns, for example, a popup box appears on his or her screen that summons a supervisor to intervene. There are also coping mechanisms for technical problems. If one or more of AP's servers goes down, the system automatically fails over to backup servers; if an entire technical center loses power, the system seamlessly swings over to an alternate site. These "failovers" have been tested repeatedly during dry runs that have been going on every day in the month running up until the election.
Q: What about safeguards involving people?
A: Layers of human expertise have been added to protect the process. For instance, each state has at least one "chase" person whose job is to do nothing but pursue missing vote reports. They will scan for counties that haven't been heard from and call the stringers. If they can't find the stringers, they'll go directly to the county clerk or to AP members to get the numbers. Also, a team of 24 people in an office in Sacramento, Calif., will do nothing but monitor the Web sites that many secretaries of states are using to post vote totals. They'll be comparing those numbers with the AP figures and making sure AP is up to date.