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How The Associated Press Calls Winners During The Election


If you are listening to this network on election night or afterward, we will not declare a winner in the presidential race until The Associated Press does. One of the editors at the center of that decision is the AP's David Scott.

DAVID SCOTT: There's this moment - it's not long, just a couple of seconds - when we make the decision to call a race, call a state that's going to put one candidate over the top of 270. And for those three or four seconds, you know, that small group of people at AP and our decision desk - we're the only ones who know who the next president's going to be.

INSKEEP: David Scott leads a team making the call on election results. And because there's so much anxiety over how and when the winner will be called this year with the president raising false claims about fraud, we asked David Scott how the process works.

SCOTT: We start with research. We're looking at what happened in a state in the primaries, what's happened in a state over history. How often has a state voted for one party or another? How many people are voting in advance in a state? And then we look at our election survey, AP VoteCast. We do this huge survey of the electorate as people are voting right up through the point the polls close on Election Day. And that gives us another rich source of data to understand what's taking place in the electorate.

And then we wait on the polls to close and the vote to start being counted. And in some states that the races aren't closely contested, we're able to make a - declare a winner, call a race right at poll close. And in some states, we're able to do so early in the vote count because the signal we get from that vote count is clear; it's not possible for a trailing candidate to catch up. And in others, we have to wait.

INSKEEP: So when is the earliest, in your memory, that The Associated Press has been able to call a presidential race on election night?

SCOTT: So in the last seven elections, we've been able to call a winner on election night or by midnight on the East Coast four times. Three times, we had to wait for later. The earliest was in 1996 at 9 p.m., when Bill Clinton won reelection over Bob Dole.

INSKEEP: This is interesting, when you say that on three occasions, you did not have the winner by midnight on election night because you were reminding us that it is not automatic, legal, required or even necessarily ordinary to know the very night of the election who won.

SCOTT: That's right. It's not unusual. In 2000, obviously, AP never called a winner in that race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. In 2004, we had to wait until the next day 'cause there were provisional ballots that had to be counted - or, at least, we had to know how many were outstanding - before we could declare a winner in the race between John Kerry and George W. Bush. And in that case, we determined the next day that there weren't enough provisional ballots outstanding in Ohio for Kerry to catch up. And then in 2016, just four years ago, we had to go deep into the early morning, and it wasn't until 2:29 a.m. that we were able to call the election for Trump.

But I think you make a good point, which is, just because we don't know by the time we go to bed or by the time the late local news is on doesn't mean anything's wrong. That's not a sign of fraud or malfeasance. It's probably an unfair expectation that we would always know on Election Day before the pandemic, and I think it's certainly an unfair expectation now, especially with just this huge boom of advance votes. They take longer to count. And again, that's not unusual, and that's not a sign of anything going wrong. It's just democracy at work.

INSKEEP: Suppose we're after election night, and one candidate is saying, this was fraud; the election was stolen. What is the practical effect of that?

SCOTT: Well, what's their evidence? We're going to look hard at everything that comes in. And if there is actual evidence that something has gone wrong, we're going to look at that. We want to do that. We're reporters. We're journalists. We're telling the story of the election. Voter fraud in this country is astonishingly rare. That doesn't mean we close our mind off to it, but we start with that reporting question.

INSKEEP: You want to call the race when it's definite but maybe not when a hundred percent of the vote is in, so you're trying to make a calculation about when this race is decided for sure. Is it going to be harder to make that call, given that you may be looking at states where you just don't have - in modern decades, anyway - a record of quite so many people voting all at once?

SCOTT: The honest answer is, no, because we're used to this. There have been many states - five coming into this year - that conducted all-mail elections that took weeks to complete their vote count. We're used to working with that. And so we are just applying the experience that we have from past elections in more places.

INSKEEP: When, if at all, will you sleep on Election Day and election night?

SCOTT: Oh, I don't think I'll sleep on Election Day - Wednesday, Thursday. I guess the good way...

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I just wondered if maybe you'd get a nap in advance or something.

SCOTT: The people who will determine when I get to sleep are the voters. How closely contested is this race? It's really up to them.

INSKEEP: David Scott of The Associated Press, thank you very much.

SCOTT: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.