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 Nov. 3.
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 analysis 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 Nov. 3, 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 — but of course, 2020 is anything but normal.
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 a race where there's been record early voting, in person and by mail. For example, election officials may announce the results of absentee and early voting before or after the tally of votes cast on 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. This is likely to happen this Nov. 3, as many mail-in ballots will likely be counted after Election Day. Because mail-in ballots likely include ballots from multiple precincts, the vote reported on election night might not be totally reflective of the actual votes cast in a given precinct.
Due to these additional challenges in accurately reporting the results of precinct voting, the AP said as of Oct. 27 that they may use "proportional precincts," or an estimate of what the precincts would normally look like, in states primarily conducting their election by mail. These proportional precincts are determined by "dividing the total vote reported in a jurisdiction by the expected turnout in that jurisdiction." As more real data comes in, election trackers update the equation to make it as accurate as possible. However, the AP cautions there's a chance that this year, this estimated figure may not match the numbers shared online by local election officials who use regular precinct reporting.
While it doesn't hurt to keep an eye on the precincts' voting results come Nov. 3, voters should take these numbers with a grain of salt — given all the changes to this year’s election, voters should probably expect to wait until after Election Day to find out if President Donald Trump or Democratic presidential nominee Vice President Joe Biden will be elected president.