Unlike the previous presidential elections, no clear winner could be seen even a day after the elections.
Here's why different media networks report different numbers on the US elections
Different networks. One election. Different numbers?
Given the highly fluid, frenetic, and even frazzled nature of the unfolding US presidential elections, it’s often quite hard for the ordinary Juan to make heads or tails of what exactly is going on. It doesn't help either that the US Electoral College system is also a unique animal of its own. And further muddling up the situation is the differing numbers that different media networks report. So, what gives?
The usual pace and cycle that follows after polls close has been disrupted this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, which gave rise to the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots and pre-election day voting that then needed to be counted far longer and at different speeds in different states. Unlike the previous presidential elections, no clear winner could be seen even a day after the elections.
The Arizona issue
One particularly contentious area that had differing treatments across some media outlets was the battleground state of Arizona, which has 11 electoral votes. Quite surprisingly, it was the conservative-leaning network Fox News that first called in Arizona for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Not surprisingly, the call infuriated the Trump campaign, with some Republican allies demanding that Fox retract its projection.
After Fox, AP followed three hours after and called Arizona for Biden. But saying that the race is too close to call, other news organizations — including CNN, have held off.
The main reason why Fox and AP called in Arizona early was that both networks use the same methodology apart from their peers after they collaborated in 2016 to develop and use AP VoteCast, which was designed to capture early voters.
AP explained in a statement that “an analysis of ballots cast statewide concluded Trump could not catch up in the ballots left to be counted.”
Meanwhile, other news networks—such as ABC, CNN, CBS, NBC—are all onboard the National Election Pool, which collects exit poll data together with a separate research firm using in-person and phone interviews. The different data gathering methodology thus gave rise to different forecasts.
The importance of mail-in ballots
The tallying of the mail-in ballots, which are said to favor Biden, has been feared to breed doubts about the integrity of the election as the large volume has the potential to significantly alter the course of the tally—an area that incumbent president Donald Trump has been harping on.
Here is Senator Bernie Sanders, who was a previous presidential contender, sharing with late night show host Jimmy Fallon, the confusion that could ensue if races are called before mail-in ballots are counted.
man... he called it WORD for WORD. pic.twitter.com/9uBn1Sm8xa— hector (@onikasgivenchy) November 4, 2020
Because of the mercurial nature of election count, media networks are now more careful and gun-shy about calling in states. Trump’s incessant barrage of unfounded allegations about electoral fraud also dialled up the pressure on newsrooms to get the story correctly. The so-called "decision desks" of media organizations, composed of experts and number crunches tasked to call races, are now facing a far more challenging landscape.
AP, which is one of the widely syndicated news wire for election news, also relies on their pool of local reporters and stringers across 50 states. There are also race callers in each state armed with election research information. The stringers collect the votes at the local level, phone in the results to a clerk, who then keys in the results that will be subjected to layers of verifications.
To date, AP released a statement explaining why they are not yet calling the presidential race “because neither candidate has secured the 270 electoral college votes needed for victory.”
“Trump or Biden would need 270 electoral votes to win. Several key states were too early to call — Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, and Nevada,” AP said.
In each of the states yet to be called, AP said that the tally remains too early to call as there are still a number of ballots yet to be counted.
CBC News, meanwhile, said they will still follow the same procedure it used in the past U.S. eletions, which is to call projected winners in states and across the country only after a majority of the five major U.S. networks—CBS, CNN, ABC, and Fox—have reached a conclusion.
CNN has also been repeatedly explaining to its viewers why races in some states have yet to be called, a policy which was stated by CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist in an interview with Variety.
“An important message for our audience, and we will repeat it all night, is that just because it’s taking longer to project the winner in these elections doesn’t mean that anything is wrong,” Feist said.
Journalism’s first obligation, it has been said, is to the truth. But the dire lessons of the past also cast a shadow on media practice today. Most recently, there was the 2000 presidential election where networks incorrectly called Florida for Al Glore, a call that was retracted later on. And much further back, there was the classic faux pas “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline from the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1948, which President Truman famously immortalized after his successful election as he held the issue aloft for all photographers to see as he smiled triumphantly.