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Counting the vote

Frequently Asked Questions

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The process

Instead of relying on crowd-sourcing or vulnerable technology, our 50-state network of local reporters have first-hand knowledge of their territories and trusted relationships with county clerks and other local officials. These stringers collect votes at a local level. We also gather results from state or county websites and electronic data feeds from states. On election night, race callers in each state are armed with a wealth of additional detailed information from our election research team, including demographics, the number of absentee ballots, and political issues that may affect the outcome of races they must call. Race callers are part of AP's Decision Desk, which declared winners in more than 7,000 races in the 2020 general election.

1. Collect the votes

Our stringers collect votes at a local level from county clerks throughout the night.

2. Phone in the results

Stringer phones in results to a vote entry clerk in one of our Vote Entry Centers.

3. Key in the data

A dedicated vote entry clerk keys in results.

4. Double check, and check again

Votes are subject to an intense series of checks and verifications. In 2020, we were 99.9% accurate in calling U.S. races, and 100% accurate in calling the presidential and congressional races for each state.

5. Deliver the results – fast

Results are posted on member websites and used in broadcast, newspaper stories, etc. Results are updated throughout the evening and the days following Election Day.

Q: What is involved on Election Day?

A: From before dawn and continuing until the count is complete, thousands of people work full time on AP’s behalf to report the election. Reporters are out with the candidates and interviewing voters at polling places nationwide. Vote count stringers and vote entry clerks will count the vote, while AP staff in the states call the races — all part of a precisely calibrated plan designed to report election results accurately.

Q: How do we gather the votes?

A: Shortly before the polls close, over 4,000 stringers report to county election centers. When the first polls close, they’ll be ready to start phoning in the raw vote as it is reported by the counties. They’ll place their calls to AP election centers around the country, which, due to the pandemic, was virtual in 2020.

At the centers, a total of over 800 vote entry clerks will answer those calls, and walk each stringer through a dialogue as they enter the number of precincts reporting and the candidates’ votes into our election night system. Since many states and counties display their election night results on websites, teams at the election centers also monitor those sites and enter results into the same system. This system tabulates the results and disseminates them in a number of formats to our member news organizations and customers.

The clerks are encouraged to ask questions to ensure accuracy. They’ll ask the stringers whether there are problems in their county, question votes and precincts if results look suspect, and make sure that those working around them ask questions, too. Quality control software checks often interrupt the vote entry with popups, requiring confirmation of numbers if they look inconsistent or are statistically unlikely. Researchers and analysts assess the results as they come in and look for unusual results.

Q: How does AP make sure the count is accurate?

A: As votes are entered into the AP system, they must pass through computer programs that set off alerts in cases of discrepancies or apparent inconsistencies with previous voting history or other data. If a clerk enters numbers that show a significant disparity from expected patterns, for example, a popup box appears on his or her screen that summons a supervisor to intervene. 

Our team of full-time election research and quality control analysts monitor and examine the results for anomalies, using sophisticated tools and our own research to ensure accuracy.

Q: What about technical problems?

A: What’s called “failover testing” is a regular part of AP’s pre-election routine. If one or more of AP’s state computers go down, the system automatically fails over to a backup system. If one of AP’s technical centers loses power, the system seamlessly swings over to an alternate site.

Q: Does AP use "precincts reporting"?

A: In all races tabulated by AP, we provide details on precincts reporting. This figure is the percentage of precincts in a race from which AP has received and is reporting results. In many states, this figure is a reasonably accurate estimate of the amount of vote counted, particularly in those states that do not separately report results for ballots cast in advance from those cast on Election Day.

However, the percentage of precincts reporting can be deceiving. In some jurisdictions, election officials may report all of the advance vote as being from a single precinct. A precinct may also be counted as reporting, but that does not mean it has released all of its results. This is why it’s possible for more votes to be added to the count in a race even when 100% of precincts are reporting. This issue is often evident in a race where mail ballots may be accepted and counted well after Election Day. This is not a new phenomenon, but it will be a factor in more states in 2020 due to the expansion of advance voting brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

In states that primarily conduct their elections by mail, or use vote centers in which voters from any precinct in a jurisdiction can cast their ballot at one of many locations, AP may choose to use an estimate of precincts reporting. This “proportional precincts” figure is calculated by dividing the total vote reported in a jurisdiction by the expected turnout in that jurisdiction.

If AP is using proportional precincts in a jurisdiction, it applies to all occurrences of precincts for all races reporting in that jurisdiction. When using proportional precincts, AP’s precincts reporting figure may not match those posted online by state and county election officials.

Q: How does AP report the expected vote?

A: During the 2022 U.S. state primaries, special elections, runoffs and for the general election, the AP has and will provide an assessment of the expected vote at the state, county, and U.S. Congressional District level. It starts with an estimate. Based on a variety of factors, such as turnout in recent elections and details on the advance vote, AP’s Election Research group sets an expected turnout figure in a state. This is done as a comparison to the past general election; for example, we might estimate the 2020 general election vote will be 103% of the 2016 vote.

As more states expand early voting and voting by mail, the details on advance vote become more important and valuable in setting that estimate. It provides us with a known data point for the current election, helping make the estimate more precise from the outset.

Once polls close and we start getting actual returns, we further refine the estimate with actual data.

To be sure, expected vote is an estimate and can fluctuate as the vote tabulation takes place and we learn more about how many people have actually cast a ballot.

Here’s the footnote we use on our election maps: “Expected vote is an Associated Press estimate of how much of the vote in an election has been counted. It is informed by turnout in recent elections, details on votes cast in advance and – after polls close – early returns. The estimate may fluctuate as election officials report additional results and AP learns more about how many voters have cast a ballot.”

Q: When does AP start publishing results?

AP begins providing results as soon as they come in on Election Day, which may be as early as the statutory poll close time in a state. Poll close times vary from state to state. Some states have multiple poll close times depending on time zones. Some small towns in New Hampshire, such as Dixville Notch and Millsfield, open the polls at 12 a.m. ET on Election Day and report their results as soon as voters have finished casting their ballots, long before New Hampshire releases its statewide data. We report the vote from Dixville Notch and Millsfield in our New Hampshire data feed as soon as it becomes available but wait to add the data to the national AP feed until poll close time.

Learn more about our race calling process.


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