On Calling Elections

It’s always fun on Election Night to see the networks balancing the urge to be first in calling a winner with the need to be sufficiently cautious and not miscall. In 2000, the former prevailed with the infamous premature Florida calls. In 2002, the networks overcorrected, taking nearly an hour to call a Virginia Senate race with no Democratic candidate. Since then, we’ve been moving back to faster calls.

This year the most notable gaffe was in a southern New Mexico House race, which networks called for Yvette Herrell (R) before realizing that there were about six thousand outstanding ballots in Doña Ana County. When counted, these (unsurprisingly) put Xochita Torres Small (D) over the top. Another error occurred in the Arizona Secretary of State race, which appears to be a case of underestimating just how Democratic the late-counted vote in Arizona was. Both California and Arizona take a while to count all of their votes, and the votes that get counted on Election Night tend to be more Republican by quite a few percentage points than the remainder.

I get frustrated when I hear people refer to calls—either by the networks or the usually-more-cautious AP—as “official”. From a legal perspective, election results are only official when certified, which can take anywhere from a week to a month, depending on the state. Projected winners are just that, a projection that when all of the votes are counted, X will win. (And on Election Night, we sometimes saw TV commentators committing the even greater sin of deeming an early Republican lead in the Montana Senate race meaningful without noting that the biggest counties yet to report were consistently Democratic.)

Of course, waiting for states to finish counting prevents us from having instant hot takes about what the election means. Hell, why wait for the West to even start reporting when you can extrapolate based on early returns from the rest of the country? (Democrats, of course, ended up gaining 10-12 House seats and 2 Senate seats just in Western states.)

Election projections are fun. But as a news consumer, be smart about how you interpret them.

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