Associate Professor, George Mason University
On election night pundits fill air time speculating on what it means if a particular race is or is not called by the media. I have been inside the boiler rooms calling election outcomes for the media since 2002, so I know how this works in practice. While not as cool as blowing up stuff -- like the Mythbusters do -- here are some election night myths that I will bust to help you cut through the election night chatter:
MYTH 1: Exit Polls Are Used to Call Elections. The primary purpose of exit polls is to help explain why people voted the way they did. If an exit poll confirms pre-election polling predicting a wide victory margin for a candidate, they may sometimes be used to call a race at poll closing. For any of the competitive races, actual election results are used to call the election outcome.
MYTH 2: Early Exit Polls Provide a Sense How the Election Will Unfold. In the vacuum of time before races are being called, the media may report some cross-tabulations from the exit polls. This may give an impression as to how the election may play out if a key demographic group is breaking in one direction or another. While exit polls are useful because they are known to sample from the universe of voters -- unlike "likely voter" models -- there are numerous survey methodology issues beyond statistical sampling error that may affect exit poll results. The direction and magnitude of these errors are revealed when actual election results from the exit poll precincts are compared to the survey results. This error is known as "Within-Precinct Error" or WPE. Once election results are reported, the exit polls are weighted to the election results. Take any exit poll results released before election results are reported with a boulder of salt. The early exit poll results will likely change once the exit polls are weighted to the election results.
MYTH 3. The Speed of Calling a Race is an Indicator of a Close Race. This is one of my pet peeves. Pundits will tell us that we will know the overall direction of the election on how quickly a particular race is called. The premium is making the right call, not making it quickly. The folks in the boiler rooms wait for hard election data to call the high profile races, with a good cross-section of election results from throughout a state. If a heavily Democratic or Republican area of a state is not reporting, the race-callers will wait until that region reports. Sometimes a region takes their time to report their election results -- for whatever reason -- and races within that state cannot be called until they do. So, while it is true that close races are not called early, it is not true that all uncalled races are close.
Because reporting of election results may not be consistent across a state, it is possible that a candidate may jump to an early commanding lead. Yet, the media will not call the election. It may be that only results from a candidate's stronghold are being reported by election officials. If the media are not calling a race, it is likely that there is a lot of votes yet to be counted in areas that may not be as favorable to the leading candidate. I have seen many times candidates jump out to early leads only to see that lead evaporate. Be careful in interpreting what early vote tallies mean, especially if a race is not being called.
MYTH 4. The Election Can Be Called Election Night. All states will not count all of their ballots on election night. Some states count significantly less than others, particularly states with a high volume of mail ballots. States that have traditionally counted 90% or less of their ballots on election night are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. If a race is close and the forecasted number of outstanding ballots is large, no call will be made. I flag Washington in particular since a little more than 50% of the ballots have been counted on election night in the past. If the Washington Senate race is close as it appears to be, do not expect the media to immediately call a winner.
A call in the Alaska U.S. Senate race may be further delayed. Mail ballot voters in Alaska may postmark their ballots by Election Day, with the deadline for receipt of domestic mail ballots of Nov. 12th and overseas ballots of Nov. 17th (many states require mail ballots to be returned by Election Day, so please check with your local election officials if you have a mail ballot still in hand). Alaska election officials will determine the number of write-in votes early Wednesday morning, East coast time. They will only begin counting these write-ins if the number of write-in votes exceeds the vote for a candidate on the ballot. If the election is close, we may not know who "won" the vote for weeks. And then there will be the inevitable litigation.
As a corollary, a race that may fall within the range of a recount will not be called.
Myth 5. The Media Calls Elections Before the Polls Are Closed. No race will be called before the polls are closed within a state. This is most important for states or districts that straddle two time zones. If you want to beat the press, localities within the earlier time zone will often begin reporting their numbers on the web before the polls close in the other time zone.
Myth 6. Early Bellwether Races Tell Us How the Election Will Unfold. Early in the night when there are only a few states that have closed their polls, the pundits will opine about the importance of these races and what they mean to the larger outcome. As Tip O'Neil famously said, all elections are local. Local circumstances may better explain who wins or loses in a particular race than a national wave. I suspect that the Republican wave may not wash ashore at the same height everywhere in the country, so please discount generalizations drawn from a few races early in the night.