Posted in Behind the News

Understanding the election: How AP counts the vote

, by Lauren Easton

On Nov. 3, The Associated Press will tabulate election results for national, state and local races and distribute them to customers around the world as it has done with a history of accuracy since 1848.

Don Rehill, director of vote tabulation and research, explains how AP will count the vote amid the coronavirus pandemic:

AP receives results from state, county and town election officials. What does it take to input and organize that information?

This year we will tabulate over 7,000 races in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C. This involves a lot of analysis. As much as there has been some movement toward standardization of election processes and results posting, it is still an incredibly decentralized, heterogeneous environment that requires us to essentially create our own common data format.

We pursue multiple sources for results, from state and county websites, to state and county data feeds, to our network of stringers at county election tabulation centers, and in some cases from precincts or municipalities. We vet these sources over the course of multiple elections and plan upcoming elections accordingly, after much research and discussion. This effort involves a lot of people — some 5,000 stringers, vote entry operators and quality control personnel.

How does AP make sure the count is accurate?

We want to be fast but we insist on being careful and correct. We have myriad vote checks and quality control parameters that create a gauntlet of logical and statistical tests that results must pass to get into our system. Questionable reports are flagged for review and can only be submitted after a supervisor confirms them. Our quality control coordinators and researchers have tons of experience, statistical skills and knowledge of the arcana of American election administration.

In short, we do our best to assure that our tabulated results are accurate by having our election experts use AP research reports, by utilizing sophisticated vote checks, and by comparing and assessing multiple sources within most states.

What are a few of the biggest changes in the election process this year that will have an impact on counting the votes nationwide on Nov. 3?

Probably the most significant new pattern will be the overall increase in mail ballot voting, and the increase in the number of states allowing such ballots to be received after Election Day.

Employees at the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office conduct logic and accuracy testing of equipment used for counting ballots, Sept. 24, 2020, in Lauderhill, Florida. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

During a number of the 2020 primaries held under emergency conditions because of the pandemic, we saw a large increase in mail ballot voting and a concomitant large increase in the percentage of rejected ballots as compared to previous elections. Also, there were extensive delays in some states’ unofficial tabulations. Tabulations take longer with large numbers of mail ballots, especially if they can be received after Election Day and still be counted, and particularly if a state had very little experience in handling high-volume mail balloting. Equipment even played a significant role. Some counties are scrambling to buy high capacity ballot scanners in preparation for the general election after struggling with precinct-level scanners in their primary.

With more time to plan and some legislative changes facilitating the processing and tabulating of mail ballots, we expect most states to handle the increase in mail ballots more seamlessly in the general election, but that increase will still create a challenge for us in estimating turnout.

Most of the patterns in election night reporting that we’ve carefully documented and planned around are going to be somewhat changed for Nov. 3, even if only by changing the relative percentages of people voting on Election Day vs. voting in advance, either in person or by mail.

We have years of experience conducting extended election night tabulations in states like Washington, California, Arizona and Utah, where only a portion of the votes can be tabulated on election night because of mail ballot rules and processing, and even in traditionally lower absentee states like New York where absentees are not processed until a week after Election Day. That is going to be more common in November. For more states than ever, we expect election night will become election fortnight.

Anything else you are watching?

We’ll definitely keep an eye on potential differences in the voting patterns between Election Day voters and early voters, and mail ballot voters in some states. This will not always be discernible until results are certified, but it will be in some cases. And it is always important to know what we’ve tabulated so far, as well as what kind of votes, and in what magnitude, are outstanding.

Deputy Managing Editor for Operations David Scott explains how AP counts the vote in this video:

Learn more about AP’s role in the election process.