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How the Associated Press calls a winner

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Cal Cunningham conceded the U.S. Senate race to Sen. Thom Tillis a day before the Associated Press (AP) declared that Tillis was the winner in the race.

In fact, the AP had yet to declare that President Trump had won North Carolina’s electoral votes.

The AP’s vote-counting process is something of a mystery to most people.

The AP, called a wire service, is a coalition of news media outlets that has been around since 1846. Among other services, the AP has been counting votes and calling elections almost the entire time.

I worked in the Atlanta AP bureau as a reporter for almost 20 years before becoming a journalism professor and then retiring to Haywood County three years ago.

The week of this election, I temporarily rejoined the AP as one of 800 vote entry operators working virtually, from our home computers (due to the pandemic).

On election night, we took calls from more than 4,000 freelance local reporters – called stringers – who collected vote counts from county and state election offices nationwide.

I started by logging into an Amazon Workspace, set up so we all had the same desktop, the same chat/message line, the same online telephone system and, of course, access to the AP’s complex Vote Tracker computer program.

“AP, Carolyn Carlson, which state are you calling from?”

The stringer would give the state and then the county name and I’d enter it into a Vote Tracker screen. I’d find out if they were calling with absentee vote totals, early votes, or poll votes, i.e., votes submitted at the precincts on election day. I’d determine how many precincts had reported.

Then it was just a matter of taking down the numbers for each candidate and making sure it was right. First, they would call out the number, and I’d repeat the numerals and then say the number, so after three times, we could be sure that we had the correct number recorded.

Sometimes I’d get flags that would stop me from moving forward. I might have typed a lower number than the previous vote total – you can’t lose votes – so that would trigger a warning to check the totals.

If it turns out the previous number was wrong, I had to make a screen shot of the page, show it to my supervisor, explain what happened, and then wait, chit-chatting with the stringer, while my supervisor consulted her supervisor and they decided how to handle the problem.

Other flags might come up when a district that had voted for one party changed to the other party, or when the turnout was much higher than anticipated, both of which were common occurrences.

The flags were designed to make sure no mistakes made it into the vote count, which I really appreciated.

Stringer calls came in one after another into the early morning hours. I was so focused on getting the numbers, I had no idea who was winning any of the races until I was finally allowed to stop at about 2 a.m.

For the rest of election week, I made out-bound calls to county election offices, collecting the remaining precinct votes and slowly adding absentee votes.

My friends would ask me to explain why the AP was so slow calling the presidential and Senate races in North Carolina, Georgia and other states.

On Nov. 10, when Cunningham conceded, officials had about 60,000 ballots in hand to be counted and Cunningham was behind by 94,500 votes. The AP called the race for Tillis the next day, as more absentee ballots were counted and the race did not tighten enough to make it possible for Cunningham to overcome the deficit.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Trump was leading Vice President Joe Biden by 73,000 on Tuesday and that lead had shrunk by 3,400 on Wednesday. Still, the AP waited until after Thursday’s deadline for receiving absentee ballots before calling that election.

So the AP waited until after Thursday’s deadline for receiving absentee ballots before calling that election.

The AP’s policy is to hold off on calling a race until there is no possible path to victory for the trailing candidate. So, if there were enough ballots still out there that could change the outcome, no call was made.

Carolyn S. Carlson lives in Maggie Valley. She has a PhD in journalism and is is retired as director of the journalism program at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta. She was a political reporter for two newspapers and the Associated Press for 25 years before joining academia. A former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, she still teaches an online journalism class for KSU.

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