Posted in Behind the News

Decision 2016: Counting the vote

, by Lauren Easton

On Nov. 8, it’s The Associated Press that will be tabulating election results for national, state and local races and distributing them to members and customers worldwide.

A voter examines a ballot at an early voting location in Worcester, Massachusetts, Oct. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Before the polls close, over 4,000 stringers will report to county election centers to start calling in results to AP. But that’s just the beginning.

Don Rehill, director of election tabulations and research, describes how AP counts the vote on election night.

AP receives results from state, county and town election officials. How complicated is it to input and organize that information?

We’ll be tabulating almost 5,000 contested races from over 4,600 reporting units in 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. The states and counties that do provide unofficial results do so in myriad formats and in a variety of ways. Our reporting is based on a spectrum of reporting modes, from an AP stringer at a town election official’s office calling our vote entry center with results given to him on a printout; to a county election official faxing or emailing us a tally receipt from their optical scanner; to folks at one of our centers manually gathering results from a county website; to a secretary of state elections office sending us XML documents with the most recent updates in all of their counties. Even within a state, we often get results on different media, and in different formats, because of differences in the counties’ election equipment, their procedures or their budgets.

As developers and folks involved in compiling election data like to say, there is no “common data format.” At AP we essentially take this crazy quilt of formats and we create our own common data format to process it. Then we run it through our quality control checks, and format and disseminate the results in a variety of ways to our thousands of newspaper, broadcast and digital members and customers.

What are a few of the biggest changes in the election process during recent years that will have an impact on counting the votes nationwide on Nov. 8?

First, the continued increase in popularity of advance voting. In the 2000 general election, advance voting was 16 percent of the total vote cast. By 2012 it was just over 35 percent. It is likely that well over 35 percent of the total votes for president will be cast before the polls close on Nov. 8, by mail or in-person advance voting.

This is tricky for us because:

a) Advance voters don’t always vote the same way as polling place voters; and

b) Advance votes are usually counted separately or differently than Election Day votes.

Second, we see a slow increase in the use of “vote centers” in counties. These are like super polling places where a voter from anywhere in the county can cast his or her full ballot.

Both of these variables create difficulties for counties, states, and as a consequence, for AP, in reporting how far along we are in the tabulation on election night. Relying on the percentage of precincts reporting doesn’t clarify the situation if a county counts half their absentee ballots the day after Election Day, or if they release early votes from all precincts as their first report, or if they report every cumulative report as representing 100 percent of the precincts because of use of vote centers.

Read more about how AP counts the vote here.