Here's what to know about "precinct reporting" for the 2020 presidential election.

Take "Precincts Reporting" With A Grain Of Salt This Election

Here’s what it does, and doesn’t, tell you.

by Lara Walsh and Lilli Petersen
Originally Published: 
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As the polls close on Election Day, the public typically turns to news outlets to get an idea of where the race stands and who’s in the lead, but all this news trickles in before all the ballots have actually been counted. As you watch the returns, you might wonder what exactly "precincts reporting" means. Here's how and why the media shares the results as they come in on Election Day.

In short, it’s a measure of how much of the vote has been counted at any given point on election night, and is often used to predict the final election results. News outlets are usually able to present the public with a rough estimate of how each state's votes are leaning even before all the ballots are counted, thanks to results coming from individual precincts, which are the smallest voting units per electoral district in each state. Once a voting precinct begins reporting numbers, outlets gauge the results and measure them against other precincts to see which candidates are pulling ahead in the state.

The numbers are compiled by the National Election Pool, which is a group of news outlets that use specific techniques to come up with exit poll analyses and make projections. Once the precinct numbers start coming in, the Associated Press and other major news outlets in the pool use this precinct data as one of their three main data sources, which include: exit poll interviews, votes by precinct (which are released by election officials), and votes by county. For the latter, the AP sends thousands of freelance reporters to county election centers. When the polls close on Election Day, the journalists begin calling AP election centers with the results of the votes. The AP then enters in all these raw votes, as well as any online results from states and counties, into an online system, and then sends the final results to news clients. This data is updated roughly every few minutes, according to The New York Times. In traditional years, these estimates are used to call a given state for one candidate or another ahead of a full tally of all the votes, which can take days or even weeks.

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While the AP is usually able to accurately judge projected winners based on the percentage of precincts reporting, there are a few factors that can be misleading — especially during races in which many people voted early or by mail. Before mail ballots can be counted they must be processed, which includes actions like confirming signatures and taking them out of envelopes and stacking them to be counted. In some states, like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, election officials aren’t allowed to start processing mail-in ballots until Election Day, meaning that the majority of those ballots won’t be included in initial tallies. For example, during the 2022 midterms, the Pennsylvania Department of State said it had received nearly 1.2 million mail-in ballots by the morning of Election Day.

In addition, just because a precinct is "reporting" doesn't mean all of its results have been released, even if they've been received: Because mail-in ballots likely include ballots from multiple precincts, the vote reported on election night might not even reflect the actual total number of votes cast in a given precinct.

According to the AP, all this is why they prefer to go with “expected vote” in terms of tabulating results. This number, the organization says, “is informed by turnout in recent elections, details on votes cast in advance and – after polls close – early returns.” And perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle is the word expected: As the AP notes, the predicted results via the expected vote can fluctuate as more info comes in.

While it doesn't hurt to keep an eye on the precincts' results on election night, it’s probably best to take things slow. And, as anxiety-inducing as it is, voters should probably expect to wait until after Election Day to find out the results of some big races.

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