Once we’re done voting, who will declare the winner?
The winner of an election isn’t officially determined on election night, but news organizations traditionally announce the projected winners based on vote totals, information gleaned from telephone, online and exit poll survey results, and historical voting patterns — time-tested methods that have proved in the past to be very accurate.
In the past three presidential elections, these unofficial projections were made before midnight on the West Coast. The 2004 presidential election was called the next day. In 2000, the results weren’t known until December, after some confusing election night pronouncements. The outcome in Florida was too close to call, which led to a controversial recount that was eventually halted by the Supreme Court. At that point, George W. Bush won the state by 537 votes, allowing him to capture the White House.
In announcing the winners, The New York Times and many other news organizations rely heavily on decisions by The Associated Press, which has staff members and contractors in each state who report votes as they are counted. Those reports are then funneled to The A.P.’s election experts, who use them, along with poll numbers, to project the winners.
A consortium called the National Election Pool, which includes the networks ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, performs a similar data collection function. The networks use this data to make their own projections. Fox News will use The A.P.’s data and make its own calls.
Will we know who the winner is on election night?
Counting absentee ballots takes longer, as they have to be manually opened, inspected, processed and then tabulated. So, from the outset, a surge in absentee ballots creates much more work for already understaffed election offices.
And in some key states — including Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — election officials are not allowed to even begin the process until Election Day. That means millions of ballots will simply pile up beforehand, and then, on the busiest day of the year, officials will finally open them and start the work. This will be a major source of delay: In the June primary, Philadelphia officials were still counting ballots for a week after the election.
These kinds of delays in some of the states most likely to decide the election may make it impossible to call a winner quickly.