Election Results: What to Expect as Ballots are Counted

By Laura Hinkle, The Council of State Governments Fellow

The 2020 general election is on track to pull some of the largest voter turnout in decades, with many states already reporting record high numbers of absentee ballot requests and returns. Millions of Americans are deeply invested in this election cycle, and as Election Day draws closer, there will be immense pressure on journalists and major news outlets to deliver election results as quickly and accurately as possible. For over a century, there has been precedent for news outlets to report election results on election night. While the intention behind this practice is to inform the general public, this practice can be incredibly misleading because many Americans aren’t aware that the results reported on election night are never official.

Reporting results on election night has caused quite a few media public relations disasters in the past. In 1948, the Chicago Tribune published their famously incorrect headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman”, calling the presidential election in favor of Thomas Dewey over Harry Truman. Again in 2000, America was on the verge of an electoral crisis as news outlets incorrectly reported Al Gore narrowly defeating George W. Bush, and then again messed up as they reported Bush’s victory too prematurely. The Supreme Court battle that ensued and the subsequent recounting of Florida ballots took over a month, with Al Gore eventually conceding the presidency “for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy”.

Following the Florida crisis, news outlets faced heavy backlash from both Congress and the American public, so the process of collecting election data and reporting the results changed drastically. Through the 2000 election, results were calculated using polling data from the Voter News Service, a conglomerate created by NBC, CNN, CBS, ABC, Fox and the Associated Press. However, after the flawed data processing from the Voter News Service in 2000, a new conglomerate formed — the National Election Pool (NEP). The NEP has evolved into a massive collaboration consisting of thousands of reporters, canvassers, data clerks and data analysts, along with increasingly advanced data processing technology. The NEP has resulted in significant progress in election reporting, as they have ended the practice of using exit-poll data to call a state race when polls are still open and completely overhauled outdated Election Day protocols.

Despite all the progress that has been made, the NEP’s prediction of who has won state and federal races is just that — a prediction. The process for races to officially be called is long and arduous. After the processing and tabulation of poll ballots, mail-in ballots, absentee ballots and outstanding ballots, county officials have a set period (usually around two weeks) to canvass the results and deliver them to their Secretary of State or the state’s chief election officer. From there, certification of the results is completed at the state and local level. This entire process can take weeks to complete, and in close presidential elections, can very well decide the fate of our nation. When Americans are aware of the actual timeline of calling election results, it can take away some of the pressure that both election officials and news outlets feel to deliver results quickly, which in turn, can lead to elections that are fairer and safer for everyone.

To learn more, visit The Council of State Governments information on elections.