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How do news organizations decide to ‘call’ a race?

Election officials say resources are available to help make an informed choice prior to casting a vote in the November general election. (PHOTO: John Wojcik KSL NewsRadio)

Voters can expect a longer wait time for results from the Nov. 3 election, as mail-in voting is expanded to several states extending the deadline to Election Day.

Experts say it may take days, maybe weeks, before they declare a winner. 

As ballot counters tally the results, journalists and voters alike will stand by until races are called. But when are these races called — and how do experts know when to declare a winner?

The race to victory

In the presidential election, the victor is not decided by the popular vote. Rather, the presidency is handed to the candidate who wins the majority of the Electoral College. 

The president-elect needs 270 Electoral votes to win the election. Each state is granted one electoral vote for every individual representative serving in Congress. 

For Utah, the candidate who wins the popular vote statewide receives all its elector votes — six in total. 

If no candidate receives the majority from the Electoral College, the House of Representatives chooses the president from the top candidates — with the Senate choosing the vice president from the remaining contenders. 

How votes are counted

Ballot counters tabulate votes in the days leading up to the deadline, as well as throughout the night on Election Day. In Utah, voters can watch vote counts refresh every 60 seconds on the official election results webpage

Local news outlets rely on these numbers to report preliminary results. 

However, several news organizations — both local and national — depend on the Associated Press to tabulate and call races across the country.

How does AP do this? Here’s a breakdown of the process: 

Several local reporters develop first-hand knowledge in the weeks leading up to the election, relying on county clerks and local officials. Reporters also gather results from states or county websites, or electronic data feeds. 

The reporting staff will depend largely on two groups: stringers and vote entry clerks. Roughly 4,000 stringers — volunteers who actually count the ballots — will report to county election centers throughout Election Night. 

Over 800 vote entry clerks — those who key in the data for reporters to use — will phone into election centers to ask demographic questions and ensure accuracy. These election centers will be all-virtual in 2020. 

After the voting data is gathered, keyed in and fact-checked, the Associated Press will deliver the results — which are used by hundreds of news outlets across the country. These results are updated throughout the night and will continue for days until a race is called. 

To ensure accuracy in the process, vote entry clerks use a computer system that will set off alerts if there are suspected discrepancies or inconsistencies. 

How a race is “called”

As votes are counted, it often becomes clear who the winner will be. For some races, that’s not always the case. 

How do experts know when to call a race?

Again, many news outlets rely on the Associated Press to determine when a race is called. AP race callers are “deeply familiar” with the states in which they are declaring the winners. 

A race is called when it becomes clear the trailing candidate no longer has a path to victory. News outlets don’t typically call projections on who the “likely winner” is — waiting to call a race until it’s definite. 

Not all races are closely contested and can be called immediately after polls close. In other cases, it may take days before a winner is declared. 

It’s typical to see a candidate declare victory or concede before a race is officially called. When a candidate publicly concedes, AP may call the race even before the final votes are tabulated. 

“Too close to call”

In some cases, the race may be deemed “too close to call.” This happens when the vote tabulation has reached its primary conclusion — meaning all ballots have been counted except provisional and late-arriving ballots — without a clear winner. 

Typically, the Associated Press won’t declare a race as being “too close” unless it will be recounted. Instead, the news agency will deem it as “too early.” 

AP will not declare winners of races that are subject to a recount. 

Why is KSL NewsRadio covering this?

This story is part of a series explaining the process behind elections in the United States and Utah. We wanted to answer commonly asked questions about the process.

Where did the idea come from?

It came from you! Listeners like you text, email or message us regularly with questions just like this one that sometimes become stories.

How did KSL report the story?

Just like you, when we need to answer tough questions, we perform searches -- sometimes using the library, sometimes online. We also consult with experts in the appropriate field to answer our questions. We then double-check the information we find for accuracy and potential bias. In this case, we also relied heavily on reporting from AP about its own process for election coverage.

I have an idea for a future in-depth report. How do I tell you about it?

We would love to hear your ideas. You can email our team at radionews@ksl.com. If you are hoping to reach a specific member of our team, you can also contact them directly through our bios, here.