Ever wonder how the major media outlets declare the winners on election night?
The big TV networks get much of the attention as results roll in. But behind the scenes, it's the nation's oldest & largest news organization - The Associated Press - that plays the key role in calling the winners.
The AP will tally the vote using an army of nearly 5,000 stringers, or freelancers, who phone in raw vote totals from the counties to one of four AP regional desks around the country. The largest regional desk? The Western Election Center at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash., where votes from 20 states are reported. AP stringers for another nine states report returns to a vote center at AP headquarters in New York City. The other two centers are in Cranbury, N.J., and Spokane, Wash.
"AP has bodies in almost every U.S. county and parish," says AP Director of Election Services Brian Scanlon.
AP bureau chiefs, working with experts from the AP's Washington bureau, will be responsible for calling races in their respective states. A "decision desk" headed by the Washington bureau chief makes the final call on all major races.
Regional AP bureau chiefs are "armed with on-the-ground knowledge of their territory that no other national news organization can match. Plus they have information on demographics, absentee and other voting history and political issues that may affect the outcome of races they must call," says the AP website. "On election night, they are assisted by experts in AP's Washington bureau who examine exit poll numbers and votes as they are counted."
It's a long process that starts as soon as the first polls open in the morning. As The AP puts it:
"From before dawn on Nov. 6 and continuing for the next 36 hours or more, thousands of people will work full time on AP's behalf to report the election. From exit poll interviewers to exit poll analysts, from vote count stringers to vote entry clerks, from bureau chiefs in the states to supervisors in New York and Washington--all are part of a precisely calibrated plan designed to report election results accurately."
But there's more to the process. The AP, along with ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC, have created the National Election Pool (NEP) to provide tabulated vote counts and exit poll surveys for the election. These news organizations in turn have contracted with New Jersey-based Edison Research to provide exit poll information. The NEP was formed in 2003 following controversies over election returns in 2000 and 2002.
Exit pollsters interview voters at randomly selected precincts. They report their results to Edison Research, which in turn provides the compiled information to NEP members. Telephone surveys are also done in some states.
As Edison Research says on its website:
"The national exit polls are perhaps the largest, most logistically challenging research projects performed in the world. We task a field staff of thousands of interviewers on one single day to administer and report hundreds of thousands of interviews and deliver the data in real time."
On Election Day, six analysts - one from each news organization in the NEP - are locked in a "quarantine room" with no phone or e-mail access from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time, NBC elections director Sheldon Gawiser told Reuters. They analyze the early exit poll data before it is released to the news outlets.
(In this video, Gawiser discusses how his network calls elections; note his mention of the NEP).
The AP has called presidential elections since 1848. But there's a new twist facing news outlets in 2012 - concerns that exit poll results could leak onto Twitter and Facebook. The major TV networks have agreed to shield early exit poll data until a state's polls have closed.
But smaller news outlets that aren't NEP members are not bound by that agreement. So one thing to watch for on Election Night will be whether small news operations or bloggers get their hands on exit poll data and release it before the major media outlets.