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Counting the vote

Frequently Asked Questions

Find out how we provide election results with speed and accuracy

Q: What is involved on Election Day?

A: From before dawn and continuing for the next 36 hours or more, 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 are the votes counted?

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.

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.

The vote count and entry operation will continue across the 50 states and the District of Columbia all night, tapering down around 4 a.m. Wednesday and then picking up again at 9 a.m. so AP can chase down the final results and go after returns in undecided races.

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. In addition, experienced quality control coordinators and analysts examine results for anomalies.

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. How does AP call races?

A. The responsibility for calling races rests with experienced staff in each state. They are armed with on-the-ground knowledge 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. On election night, they are assisted by experts in AP’s Washington bureau who examine exit poll numbers and votes as they are counted. A “decision desk” in Washington, headed by the Washington bureau chief, has the final signoff on all top-of-the-ticket calls.

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