Posted in Behind the News

Counting votes, declaring winners amid global pandemic

, by Lauren Easton

Every major election night at The Associated Press requires staff from across the news cooperative to come together to tell the story of who won, and why. Three U.S. states plan to move ahead today with presidential primary elections amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and that means there will be votes to count and races to call.

Deputy Managing Editor for Operations David Scott explains how AP will continue to play its role in the American democracy amid a global pandemic:

To start, we’re reporting. As we did on Monday night in Ohio, and as we do every day, AP reporters are talking to election officials, to the campaigns, to voting rights activists and others to get the latest information about what is taking place in Arizona, Florida and Illinois – and what’s happening in Ohio. We expect the situation to be fluid throughout the day, but we’re prepared to do a few things. First, to count the vote, call races and tell the story of these most unusual elections. Second, to communicate to AP’s customers around the world about what to expect tonight. We’re doing both of those things in a unique time, when many journalists at the AP are working from home and practicing safe social distancing when reporting in the field. However, if there’s one thing we’re skilled at when it comes to covering an election, it’s telling the story of who wins, and why, when not everyone involved is in the same room. On a “regular” election night, the team that tabulates vote count results is based in New York, working with staff in satellite locations at remote sites on the East and West coasts. The team that conducts AP VoteCast, our replacement for exit polling, is largely based in Chicago. The Decision Desk that calls races based on the AP vote count and AP VoteCast works in Washington. That’s where the editors who lead the coverage are based, too, but the journalists making pictures, shooting video and writing the story are out with the candidates and voters.
Voters cast their ballots in the Florida presidential primary, March 17, 2020, in Bonita Springs, Florida. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
On one of those “regular” election nights, there are a lot of phone calls, some video conferencing and a lot of Slack messages. This Tuesday will be no different. Some things will change, of course. We’ve set up our data centers, where we collect vote count details that are called in to AP from across the country, to use social distancing. No one will be sitting near anyone else, and they’ll have a boxed meal for dinner at their desks rather than the usual buffet. We’re rigorously cleaning our equipment and providing hand sanitizer and wipes, too. Many of us will be working from home, rather than in one of our bureaus. We will communicate via Slack. And there will be a standing video chat, too, where the team at the Decision Desk can talk through the data and decide when a race is ready to be called. We'll also benefit from AP VoteCast. Our election research doesn’t use in-person interviewers like an exit poll; instead, we survey voters via mail, phone and online. In some ways, it’s the perfect polling methodology for a time when staying six feet from others is the rule of the day.
That’s not to say we won’t be cautious on election night.
While the majority of voters in Arizona and Florida cast their ballots early, historically most people in Illinois still vote on the day of the election. We’ll be watching results in all three states closely to see how the impact of COVID-19 may change the shape of the electorate. What to expect? It may take election officials more time to report out results on Tuesday. Election officials in Chicago said it was possible that some polling locations might open late or would be in the midst of setting up as voters arrive. Events in Ohio moved fast on Monday night; we are ready to move just as quickly to cover any breaking news in Illinois, Arizona and Florida. We do expect there will be votes to count on Tuesday night and races to declare. This, too, might take more time than usual as we consider the impact of the coronavirus on what takes place today. AP will tabulate the results and we’ll call the Democratic primaries as we always do – with care, cool deliberation and only when we’re 100% confident of the winner.

Learn more about AP VoteCast.