Counting votes on Election Day has always been complex—and it may be more so in 2020

Close contests and blown calls have always been part of U.S. presidential elections. But the rise of mail-in voting driven by the pandemic portends for a particularly challenging year.

Published 2 Nov 2020, 13:02 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 04:57 GMT
An election worker scans mail-in ballots at the Clark County Election Department on October 20, 2020, ...

An election worker scans mail-in ballots at the Clark County Election Department on October 20, 2020, in North Las Vegas, Nevada. Across the U.S. states have expanded mail-in voting to contain the coronavirus—but the influx may make projecting a winner on Election Day more challenging.

Photograph by Ethan Miller, Getty

By the morning of November 8, 2000, the news anchors of all the major U.S. television networks were scrambling to explain how things had gone so wrong the night before.

Early in the evening, they had declared Democrat Al Gore the winner of Florida’s electoral votes in the presidential race—then retracted those predictions within hours when it became clear the race was too close to call. At 2:16 a.m., they returned to declare the state’s returns for Republican George W. Bush. That prediction, too, was retracted within hours.

"We don't just have egg on our face," NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said at the time. "We have an omelette."

Americans had grown to rely on the media to inform them of who their next president would be on the same day that they had cast their votes—or at least by the next morning in a close race. But the winner of the 2000 election wouldn’t be determined until December 12, after weeks of recounting the Florida ballots and a Supreme Court ruling. It is the only contest in modern history to drag on unresolved well past Election Day.

This year’s election could change that. The pandemic has driven a surge in mail-in voting that could wreak havoc once again if the contest is close. But while it’s unusual in modern elections, America hasn’t always had such speedy vote counts. Here’s a look at how election night has evolved through the years—and why 2020 has the potential to be a year like no other.

The first Election Day

Election Day didn’t exist for the first several decades of American democracy. The U.S. Constitution didn’t set a date for presidential elections but rather gave Congress the authority to determine when states choose their electors to the Electoral College—the institution that selects the president and vice president on behalf of U.S. voters.

In the country’s early years, Congress simply set a deadline by which states had to choose their electors and otherwise allowed them to hold elections at any time in the preceding 34-day period. But by 1845, Congress began to worry that this process allowed states that voted earlier to unduly influence others. In response, it designated a single Election Day for the entire country on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The 1848 presidential election was the first in which all states voted on the same day—and the first in which the winner was called quickly by the media.

This was made possible by two important developments earlier that decade: the invention of the telegraph and the creation of the organisation now known as the Associated Press (AP), which had been founded to split the cost of far-flung newsgathering among daily newspapers. The AP used the telegraph to collect returns from the 30 states that existed at the time—racking up more than $1,000 (£780) in telegraph tolls.

Although it would take the AP three days to count the returns, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the day after the election that Whig candidate Zachary Taylor was the likely winner. “The few returns which came in last night by telegraph, point with moral certainty to the success of Gen. Taylor,” the paper wrote. Though it wasn’t an official projection, Taylor did ultimately win the election.

Making the call

The arrival of the first coast-to-coast telegraph link in 1861 soon made it possible for newspapers to obtain election returns from across the country more quickly. But, as University of Maryland associate professor of journalism Ira Chinoy writes, “it would take years for the telegraph to spread to enough places for a critical mass of votes to be reported nationwide on election night.”

Under pressure to beat their rivals, however, newspapers began to use not just the returns the AP was compiling from precincts across the nation but also nationwide opinion polls and data from past elections to forecast a winner on election night. To relay those predictions to the public, some newspapers began literally projecting election returns onto screens outside of their offices and even using searchlights to announce the results. 

But they weren’t always right when they did—in 1916, the New York Times erroneously signalled to New Yorkers via searchlight that Republican Charles Evans Hughes had defeated incumbent president Woodrow Wilson. But the close race wouldn’t be resolved in Wilson’s favour until two days later when the AP announced its results.

President Harry Truman holds up a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune declaring his defeat to Thomas Dewey in the presidential election on November 4, 1948. Despite Truman's lead in the vote count, the paper relied on opinion polls that favored Dewey to make its erroneous prediction.

Photograph by Underwood Archives, Getty

More famously, in 1948 the Chicago Tribune relied on opinion polling to declare Republican Thomas Dewey the winner even though Democrat Harry Truman led in the AP vote count. The next day, a triumphant Truman held up the paper whose front page screamed, “Dewey defeats Truman.”

Technology and Election Day

In the 20th century, technological developments made it possible to announce election results earlier and more accurately. On November 2, 1920, the first commercial radio station launched on Election Day—timed specifically to announce the returns to listeners in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Radio station KDKA read the returns for Republican Warren G. Harding’s victory over Democrat James Cox to about 1,000 listeners.

By the end of the decade, radio had become an essential part of Election Day. As the New York Times reported in 1928, the National Broadcasting Company arranged that year to present the election returns nationwide for the first time, which it noted would allow citizens to “follow better than ever before the progress of voting.” (The U.S. has never delayed a presidential election—even during times of war and the 1918 flu.)

In 1952, television became a force in election night broadcasting with three networks airing the returns nationwide. CBS News famously enlisted the help of one of the UNIVAC, one of the world’s first commercial computers. Early in the night, the UNIVAC predicted a landslide win for Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower over Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Although the prediction was ignored—believed to be inaccurate in what had been a close race—it proved correct.

In 1964, the networks and wire services pooled their resources to hire one hundred thousand people to gather precinct returns from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Combined with the newfangled computers that could tabulate the returns more quickly, the New York Times wrote that “the electorate can expected to be better informed on how it voted than any other election night in history.”

But the system had its hiccups. In 1968, aberrations in the vote count forced the media to revert to backup systems. The AP didn’t declare the GOP’s Richard Nixon the victor over Democrat Hubert Humphrey until the next day.

Exit poll effect

By the late 20th century, networks were incorporating exit polling—surveys of people who had just left the voting booth—in their projections. In 1980, exit polling data allowed NBC News to call the election for Ronald Reagan before polls had even closed on the West Coast. The use of exit polls was controversial for the way it could influence elections, and networks ultimately promised not to project results in any state until its polls had closed.

In 1990, the AP and the networks created an exit polling consortium called the Voter News Service that combined exit polling data with actual returns to call elections. But the system failed in the 2000 election—and was partially to blame for the networks calling Florida for Gore before the polls had closed in the state. The consortium was disbanded but, in 2004, a new consortium was created called the National Election Pool that still exists today.

The AP pulled out of the National Election Pool after the 2016 election, however, citing its concerns that exit polling no longer accurately captures an electorate that is increasingly voting early, absentee, or by mail. For the 2020 election, the organisation has developed its own survey to poll voters by mail, phone, and online to help inform its election night decisions.

Mail-in ballots and the 2020 election

Although the electorate has been slowly moving for years toward mail-in and early voting, the coronavirus pandemic has sped up that process. In 2020, a record 80 million had already cast their votes by the week before Election Day.

Mail-in ballots take longer for election officials to process, explains the AP’s Election Decision Editor Stephen Ohlemacher. They have to open the ballots, verify the voter is registered and has filled out the correct ballot, and in some states they check to ensure the signature on the ballot matches the one that’s on file for the voter. 

In more than half of U.S. states, election officials may begin processing mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day, though most cannot start counting them. In 22 states and the District of Columbia, mailed ballots postmarked by Election Day can also still be counted if they arrive days later.

In some states, this means that officials may not be able to finish counting mailed ballots by the end of Election Day, says Steven Huefner, deputy director of Election Law at Ohio State, a nonpartisan program at The Ohio State University. If the election results in other states are decisive in favour of one candidate, however, news organisations would still be able to project a winner fairly quickly.

But in a close or contested race—particularly in a battleground state such as Pennsylvania or Wisconsin—it could mean long delays in determining a winner as the states finish their counts and then review and certify their results. “If it’s incredibly close then we really can’t declare who has won,” Huefner says. “The 2000 election in Florida is the poster child for that.”

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