Thursday, December 3, 2020
Dec. 3, 2020

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Camden: Election results about the math

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More people who strongly supported one candidate or deeply loathed another seemed to get angry this year when we told them the race isn’t going to turn out the way they hoped.

We should respect the will of the voters and wait until all ballots are counted, they said in all-caps emails or profanity-laced voicemails.

They seem to have forgotten, or maybe just never noticed, that except in very rare circumstances, races traditionally are “called” at some point before the last vote is run through a machine. It was that way when everyone voted at the polls and hasn’t changed just because Washington votes by mail.

The networks call presidential races with a panel of experts who study results and run computer models based on historic trends. The Spokesman-Review calls local and state elections with fewer people and less sophisticated models, but we’ve never had a “Dewey Beats Truman” headline.

It has always been controversial with candidates who were behind and weren’t ready to be labeled a loser, or those who were ahead and unhappy they weren’t called the winner.

To both I would say: “It’s not personal. It’s math.”

OK, I hear the snickers out there. Journalists are generally regarded as being decent at spelling, grammar and syntax, but generally bad at math.

As a rule, that’s true. But every reporter learns some basic political math on their first election night. First you wait for the numbers to come in from as much of the universe of voters as possible. We don’t call a congressional race based on partial Spokane city results. We don’t call a statewide race based on a few counties.

We wait as long as possible because margins can be volatile. On election night, gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp was ahead in the first posted returns with some 70 percent of the vote. Nobody declared him the winner, because those returns were from Ferry County, which is his home county and only has about 0.1 percent of state voters. In a statewide race, we wait for as many counties as possible, but at the very least, the biggest five — King, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston and Spokane — to see who is ahead.

When those came in, Jay Inslee was comfortably ahead. We called it. The Associated Press called it earlier.

The math is pretty basic, and works like this: However big the lead for Candidate A on election night, Candidate B must get a bigger share of the votes when the remaining ballots are counted. That gets more difficult as time goes on.

If 100,000 votes are counted on election night and Candidate A got 55,000, Candidate B will need to flip the margins and get at least 55,001 of the next 100,000 votes to go ahead. Can the margins flip by 10 points? Yes, but rarely.

If there are only 75,000 ballots left, Candidate B still needs 55,001, which would be about 73 percent of those remaining. That reversal might be theoretically possible, but mathematically improbable.

In Washington, ballots are counted for up to three weeks. But with each day’s count, Candidate B’s chances get smaller if his margin doesn’t meet or exceed the margin needed to overtake Candidate A.

The trailing candidate and supporters can refuse to concede. It’s their right.

They might raise allegations of voter fraud. The bigger the gap in votes, the more outlandish their claims are likely to be. Under the First Amendment, political speech is among the freest, which doesn’t always make it the truest or the most beneficial to a democratic republic.

In waiting, we sometimes get nasty comments from the leading candidate because the trailing candidate is refusing to concede. Not our department.

We don’t project winners to satisfy candidates or their supporters. We don’t project losers to disrespect or annoy them.

We do it for the readers, particularly for those who voted, followed the campaigns or might be interested in the future makeup of their city, county, Legislature or state. They want to know who won so they can get on with other things in their lives.

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