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The process

In the 2020 U.S. general election, The Associated Press declared winners in more than 7,000 races – starting with the White House and reaching down the ballot to every seat in every state legislature. This hallmark of AP’s Election Day news report is produced by a dedicated team of election analysts, researchers and race callers who make up our Decision Desk.

AP does not make projections or name apparent or likely winners. If our race callers cannot definitively say a candidate has won, we do not engage in speculation. AP did not call the closely contested race in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore – we stood behind our assessment that the margin in Florida made it too close to call.

Only when AP is fully confident a race has been won – defined most simply as the moment a trailing candidate no longer has a path to victory – will we make a call. AP declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election at 11:26 a.m. ET on Nov. 7. 

AP’s race callers and Decision Desk are driven entirely by the facts. Race calls made by other organizations have no bearing on when AP declares a candidate the winner. Our decision team does not engage in debate with any campaign or candidate. Should a candidate declare victory – or offer a concession – before AP calls a race, we will cover newsworthy developments in our reporting.  In doing so, we will make clear that AP has not yet declared a winner and explain the reason why we believe the race is too early or too close to call.

AP declared winners in 7,000 races in 2020

Races are called when a winner is clear

Q: Who calls races at AP?

A: AP’s race callers are staff who are deeply familiar with the states where they declare winners. Most have called races in a state for many years. Their work begins months before Election Day, as they study election rules and recount requirements and track changes and updates to election law. They work with AP’s political and government reporters to sharpen their understanding of campaigns and track coverage of races from AP member news organizations and customers.

They also review and rely on information from AP’s election research group. They know before polls close how each county and congressional district in their state has voted in past elections, the state’s past results for voting by mail and early in-person voting, and the state’s history of counting votes after Election Day.

Every election year, race callers also complete extensive training sessions designed to review and refresh the analytical skills required to make accurate decisions on election night.

Q: When does AP call a race?

A: AP race callers have a wide range of tools at their disposal to analyze the state of a race. They include AP’s vote count, which it has conducted in every U.S. presidential election since 1848. The Decision Desk also has access to data from AP VoteCast, our wide-ranging survey of the American electorate.

Race callers collaborate with analysts who focus on statewide races, such as those for U.S. Senate and governor, and elections for the U.S. House of Representatives. The editors at AP’s Decision Desk sign off on every race call for president, U.S. Senate and governor.

Together, they are looking at far more than just the overall vote totals. They study the incoming vote county by county. In states where the information is available, they look at the vote by type of ballot: cast in person on Election Day, or in advance by mail or in person. They are also in constant contact with AP’s vote count team, in search of the latest information about what’s been counted so far and how many ballots may still be left to count.

Much attention in 2020 was focused on when ballots would be counted by election officials – before Election Day, on Election Day or on the days after. This is something AP’s Decision Desk has long factored into making a race call. In 2018, for example, Republican Martha McSally led in the race for U.S. Senate in Arizona on election night. AP waited to declare a winner because we expected Democrat Kyrsten Sinema would fare much better than McSally in late-arriving mail ballots that would be counted after Election Day. She did, and AP called Sinema the winner the following Monday.

All of this reporting and analysis is aimed at determining the answer to a single question: Can the trailing candidates catch the leader? Only when the answer is an unquestionable “no” is the race is ready to be called.

Q: Does AP use exit polls to call races?

A: For many years, AP was part of the National Election Pool that conducted exit polls in general elections and during presidential primaries. AP left the NEP after the 2016 election, in part because we no longer believe interviewing voters at polling places on Election Day is the best methodology to survey an electorate that increasingly votes in advance.

In 2018, we debuted AP VoteCast. Working with NORC at the University of Chicago, AP developed a new approach to survey research designed specifically to account for the steady rise in votes cast before Election Day. In 2018, roughly 43% of voters cast their ballots before polls opened on Election Day. 

While we did not anticipate the pandemic when developing AP VoteCast, its methodology was well suited for those cicumstances. Research from AP VoteCast told us how many people voted early, among other things, helping us understand the shape of the race. You can read more about its methodology and how we use results from the survey here.

Q: How can AP call a race as soon as polls close?

A: Not all races are closely contested. In some states, a party or candidate’s past history of consistent and convincing wins – by a wide margin – make a race eligible to be declared as soon as polls close. In these states, we use results from AP VoteCast to confirm a candidate has won.

To be sure, AP will not call the winner of a race before all the polls close in a jurisdiction. And we remain committed to using results from AP VoteCast with great care and caution, applying the same standard of absolute assurance to a race call made at poll close as we do all others.

Q: When is a race "too close to call"?

A: Beginning in 2019, AP’s Decision Desk started the practice of formally declaring some elections as “too close to call.” The vote tabulation in such a race has reached its primary conclusion – all outstanding ballots save provisional and late-arriving absentee ballots have been counted – without a clear winner.

AP may decide not to call a race if the margin between the top two candidates is less than 0.5 percentage points. On election night, AP may not call winners in races for U.S. House if the margin is less than 1,000 votes and winners in races for state legislature if the margin is less than 2 percentage points or 100 votes.

If an election has significant news value, such as one that would determine party control of a state legislature, AP will closely review the race to determine whether an exception to these standards may be made.

In races where tabulation remains active and ongoing, AP will not declare a race “too close to call” unless it is clear it will proceed to or be subject to a recount. That includes races where completing the vote count may take several days. In such cases, AP will describe a race in its news report as “too early to call” – an informal designation that indicates we do not have enough data to make a race call.

Q: How does AP handle recounts?

A: AP does not declare a winner of an election that will be — or is likely to become — subject to a mandatory recount.

In several states, recounts are mandated if the margin between the top two candidates falls inside a set range established by law. AP will not call a race if the margin is within such a mandatory recount range — or if it could fall into that range as final votes are counted.

In some states, recounts may be requested if the margin falls inside of a set range. In others, candidates can request a recount regardless of the margin between the top two candidates. In these states, AP will not call a race if the margin between the top two candidates is 0.5 percentage points or less, or if the margin could fall inside that range once all ballots cast are counted.

AP may call the race if the trailing candidate confirms they will not seek a recount or if the candidate publicly concedes the election.

Learn more about our vote counting process.


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