Election Decision Editor Stephen Ohlemacher, who directs AP’s race callers, explains this critical function and what it means to declare election winners during a pandemic:
How does AP determine when a race is ready to be called?
AP race calls aren’t predictions or projections; they are declarations. There are no apparent winners or likely winners. If we cannot definitively say who won, we don’t speculate. The AP calls a race when we conclude that the trailing candidate will not catch the leader.
The AP has a corps of race callers dedicated to each state, backed by teams of analysts in our Washington bureau. Race callers and analysts begin preparing months ahead of Election Day, relying on a tremendous amount of data from AP’s election research team.
Analysts have deep knowledge about the political makeup of their states; how each county and district has voted in past elections; how many ballots are typically cast before Election Day, either by mail or in person; and whether counties are able to count all those votes on election night. They participate in in-depth training on AP’s election systems and, on election night, they are in constant contact with AP’s vote count team.
The AP also tracks legislative and policy changes in each state, including court rulings, that could increase the number of mail ballots in the November election.
An influx of absentee and mail-in voting is expected this year due to the pandemic. What effect will that have on AP’s ability to call races?
Since the start of the pandemic, there have been large increases in the number of mail ballots in many state primaries, a trend that will continue in the general election. Mail ballots take longer to process and count than Election Day votes cast at neighborhood polling places. Election officials have to open mail ballots, make sure the voter is registered and has filled out the correct ballot for their neighborhood. In some states, they check to make sure the signature matches the one on file or review a copy of an ID or an affidavit signed by a notary or a neighbor. Then they can count the vote.
Unless counties can start processing mail ballots well before Election Day, the count can drag on for days and weeks, like it did during this year’s primaries in Pennsylvania and New York.
In close races, counting delays can delay race calls. This is not new. For years, the AP has declared election winners in states that take weeks to count their votes, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah and Washington State.
In Arizona’s 2018 Senate race, Republican Martha McSally led Democrat Kyrsten Sinema by more than 13,000 votes when the state paused its count on election night. The AP held off on declaring a winner because our analysts knew there were thousands of votes left to be counted. Just as important, they knew that most of the outstanding votes were in areas where Sinema was winning.
Six days later, after an additional 700,000 votes were counted, the AP declared Sinema the winner. Her final margin of victory was just under 56,000 votes, out of nearly 2.4 million votes counted.
In 2020, the AP and the world should expect extended vote counts in more states.
Ohlemacher explains AP’s role in race calling in this video: