Sunday, November 29, 2020
Nov. 29, 2020

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From the Newsroom: Election reporting thorough

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

I still remember working my first election night. It was November 1984, and Ronald Reagan was running for his second term. Democrat Booth Gardner was challenging incumbent Gov. John Spellman, and there was an anti-abortion initiative that was drawing a lot of heat.

I was living and working in North Central Washington, and the Associated Press paid me either $50 or $100 (I don’t recall which, but it seemed like a lot) to make collect calls to their data center every 30 minutes with the updated election results from the courthouse. Since I had to be there anyway to write about the 7th Legislative District races, I eagerly accepted.

I felt important. A week or two before the election, the AP sent me instructions, and we held a practice session on a Saturday afternoon. As I recall I had to start off each call by saying “This is a Washington county report from County No. 24, Okanogan County. Reagan… .”

I stayed at my post until a deputy sheriff delivered the ballot boxes from Chesaw and Nighthawk, and the last votes of the night were counted.

It all sounds so last century, so I was interested to read how the Associated Press is covering this year’s election. Sally Buzbee, the AP’s executive editor, recently wrote about this year’s efforts for Nieman Reports, an academic journal.

“Counting the vote and calling races is a critical function of the American democracy, and of America’s decentralized election system. It is an essential role that AP has played for nearly two centuries and one that AP will again deliver on in November,” Buzbee wrote.

“As it does in every election, AP will collect and verify U.S. election returns in every county, parish, city and town across the country, covering races down to the legislative level in every state. This year, AP will declare winners in 7,000 contests, doing the work so that the public knows as soon as possible who wins not only the White House, but control of Congress and every state legislature. Thousands of broadcasters, newspapers, digital outlets, and others will rely on AP’s results.”

It sounds like someone will earn $100 to go to Okanogan again this year, or at least be detailed to keep an eye on the county’s website.

Already AP has been testing and retesting its delivery of results. A major test occurred Tuesday, when the Seattle bureau moved dozens of mock results and race calls over the state wire.

Buzbee had some interesting insight into how AP calls the winners in each races. “To make our calls, we consider first and foremost the vote count and the amount of vote still to be counted, plus polling data from AP VoteCast — which surveys voters online, on the phone and by mail — and our own analytical tools, as well as an enormous amount of research,” Buzbee wrote.

The presidential race is the one everyone will be watching, of course. Here’s what she had to say about that:

“If we cannot declare a winner on election night, it won’t be the first time. In fact, AP was the first to call Donald Trump the winner in 2016–at 2:29 a.m. ET the day after Election Day. In 2004, AP did not call the presidency for George W. Bush until 11:07 a.m. ET, again the day after Election Day. And in 2000, AP stood alone when it assessed the race between Bush and Al Gore and decided it was too close to call.

“Not knowing the winner on election night does not necessarily indicate fraud or disaster. It may simply mean that states are taking their time and being careful about tabulating votes.

“At the AP, we will also be careful. We certainly want to tell the American people — and the world — who has won the presidency as soon as possible, but accuracy comes first.”

Next week, I will write a little bit about how The Columbian’s journalists will cover the election.

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