ASMA KHALID, HOST:
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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the 2020 campaign.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: And I'm Scott Detrow. I also cover the campaign.
We have talked a lot on this podcast about how different this election season is.
KHALID: That's right. And already, over 60 million people have voted early. They voted either in person or by mail, largely in a response to the coronavirus pandemic and a president who has invoked conspiracy theories to call into question the legitimacy of this system. All of that has made people uncertain about how and when we might actually know the results of this election.
DETROW: We've talked a lot about how the vote will be counted. But today we want to talk about how outlets like NPR report on election night who has won each state and what goes into that. So we thought it would be a good idea to talk to the folks at the Associated Press, who NPR and a lot of other news outlets rely on to make that call.
KHALID: And so joining the podcast today is a special guest, David Scott.
DAVID SCOTT: Hi.
KHALID: So, David, we should begin by explaining that you have kind of a bit of a wonky job - right? - in terms of helping folks understand which state has been called for which candidate. So let's just start with what your official role is there at AP. What do you do? What does your team do?
SCOTT: Sure. I'm one of the deputy managing editors at AP. It's my job to make sure that our coverage on election night, especially around counting the vote and calling races and declaring winners, is what it is.
KHALID: Got it. And then how long have you all at the AP been calling races? Like, how long has the Associated Press been in the business of doing that?
SCOTT: Well, we got our start counting the vote in 1848...
KHALID: Oh, wow.
SCOTT: ...Which is two years after the cooperative was founded. You know, the members of the cooperative back then didn't want to wait for the vote to get counted up. And there's really no provision in the Constitution that says who should actually do all that counting, who should say who the winners are. But we've got a long history of playing this role in the democracy.
DETROW: So I think what gets the most attention and what we want to talk about the most here is when the AP calls a race, when you hear Ari Shapiro or Ailsa Chang or NPR's other hosts saying, you know, the AP has called California for Joe Biden. We have talked - like I said before, we have talked so much about how it's going to take a while for states to count all of the votes and make sure they're all in. That's something, you know, California especially won't have finished for weeks. But oftentimes, the AP calls a race before all the votes are counted, sometimes kind of early on in the night. Can you explain what the AP is looking at, what it is thinking about when it decides to call a state for one candidate or another?
SCOTT: Sure. At its heart, the most simple thing that we're doing is looking at all the available data to make a determination. Can any of the candidates who are trailing catch up? Do they have a path left to victory? And in some cases, that is a fairly simple, straightforward call. A state that has been Republican for generations, a state - in that state, Republicans have far more registered Republicans than there are registered Democrats. The state has voted - in the primaries, there were 10 times more Republicans voting in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary. All of the pre-election polls show the Republican candidate winning. When you have all of that data lined up, those are the calls that you can make really early in the night. Sometimes, we even make them at poll close using our election survey, which we call AP VoteCast. Other times, the races are really competitive. They're really close. And that's where you have to wait for the vote count.
And we have to look at all the various ways that we look at the vote count. So it's not just sort of the topline number, who's up and who's down. But we are looking at where the vote was counted. You know, from what parts of the state has the vote come in? We're looking at when the vote was counted. We're looking at how the vote was cast. Were these Election Day votes? Were these advance votes? And so we're looking at all of those various pieces of data to all come back to that central question, can the candidates who are behind catch up? And when we've determined that they have - no longer have the ability to do so, they don't have a path to victory, that's when we can call the race.
DETROW: And we're going to talk about VoteCast in a little bit in more detail. But just to follow up on that, I'm wondering what, if anything, the AP is doing differently, given all of the mail-in ballots that might take a while to count? I think the one scenario that has been focused on the most is the fact that, like, Pennsylvania, one of the most important states - you know, a city like Philadelphia might have hundreds of thousands of vote-by-mail ballots to go through, and they won't start counting until Election Day itself. How much does that change the way that the AP looks at all of the data coming in from Pennsylvania?
SCOTT: Before this year, before the pandemic, there were many states - five - that had all-mail elections. There were several states that had what I call multimode elections, where there's early in-person voting; there's early vote by mail; there's absentee balloting, and there's same-day voting. So having to analyze a state and look at the vote and how people are casting their ballots in those ways isn't new. We've had to do that for many elections.
What's new this year is having to do it in so many more places and at a scale that is really unprecedented. This is going to be the first election in American history where more than half of voters are going to cast their ballot before polls open on Election Day. And that's such an amazing idea that that transition is taking place. And it's taking place incredibly rapidly. Like, we were always going to get there, but I didn't expect at the start of this year that it would be this year. It might have been two election or three election cycles away. So the things that we had seen develop over time, the shift to more advance voting, the shift to all-mail balloting in some states - that's been happening. But what the pandemic did was just accelerate it.
KHALID: So, David, on that note, you're talking about just having to deal with the scale of, say, voting early or vote by mail in a different way this election cycle. Are you all, you know, changing anything in terms of your processes because of all those changes? You know, how do you deal with that sort of uptick in the early vote just in terms of what you guys are doing behind the scenes?
SCOTT: Yeah. I think there's two things really that come into play here. One is our - the team on the decision desk is about 60 people. So there's a lot of knowledge transfer happening right now and has been happening for the past several months, where we've had to teach analysts and race callers and editors and our decision team who may not have had personal experience with dealing with large advance vote or all-mail-in vote - how to do that.
The second thing is just more research - just more research. There's so much more to know this year. There's so much more that we don't know about this year that we have to try to prepare for. This week, one of the things that we're really looking into is trying to get a sense of how quickly that advance vote might be counted in the context of all of the vote. So one of the things that we've always looked at on the - at the decision desk on election night is, at what point in the night historically have states completed their count? It's midnight. These states are usually at 98%. And these states are at 70%, and these states are at 60% of how much vote they've counted.
And so what we're trying to do now - and really, like, I was actually working on it this morning - looking at all of the advance vote data that we have and looking at what happened in the primaries when some of these states started to make that transition, can we try to put an estimate together of when they'll be at 90% counted, and when they'll be at 95% counted? And that - you know, those are guide rails. That's guidance that we can use on the decision desk as we start to look and analyze, when is a race ready to call? That's important information. If we knew exactly how many votes were going to be counted in an election, how many votes were cast in an election, our jobs would be a lot easier. So we have to do this type of analysis to try to figure it out ahead of time.
KHALID: Got it. We've got, I'm sure, a lot more questions, both of us, for you. But let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk in more concrete details about what we can expect on the night of November 3.
And we're back. And, David, so generally, the Associated Press has been able to call the presidential election, I would say, roughly - right? - in 12 or so hours after the polls close. Is that a fair assessment?
SCOTT: Since 1992, we've been able to call it on Election Day - and by that, I mean midnight on the East Coast - four times. And three times, it took us more than Election Day. In 2004, it was the next day. In 2016, it was about 2:30 in the morning on Wednesday, East Coast time. And then in 2000, obviously, we never called...
SCOTT: ...The race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
KHALID: So given that history, what would have to happen this year in order for you all to be able to call the presidential election, let's say, the night of November 3?
SCOTT: The No. 1 factor about how quickly we can call a race is how closely contested it is. That - even amid the pandemic and the changes in how we are voting in this country and all the disruption that's taken place this year, that's the No. 1 thing. So if the race is going to be very closely contested like it was in 2016, like it was in 2004, it will take longer. If the race is not a close contest, that's - those are races that we can call much earlier in the night. So ask me the day before Election Day, and maybe I'll be able to give you a better sense. But I don't like making predictions, you know, even this close to the election because things can change. They did in 2016, and there are still seven days to go.
DETROW: And you had mentioned earlier, VoteCast is one of the tools that the AP uses to gather information about voters to get a sense of which direction they're leaning and also the issues they care about. I think a lot of listeners might have it ingrained in their heads that the exit polls are often wrong. First of all, can you explain what VoteCast is? - because one of the most interesting things about it is this is a relatively recent attempt by the AP and some other places to really account for some of the shortcomings of exit polls and have something much more substantive to look at.
SCOTT: Yeah, so in 2016, we were still part of the group that conducts the exit poll. And after that election, we decided that was the moment to try to look at doing this in a new way. In that election, 42% of Americans voted before Election Day. And if your methodology is based on interviewing people as they leave physical polling places, we didn't like the fact anymore that we were missing so much of that part of the electorate with our primary methodology with the exit poll.
So we set out to try to figure out a way - how could we survey the electorate as they are casting their ballots in a way that gets really good, accurate information, regardless of how and when a voter casts their ballot? And it's a huge survey. We will talk to 140,000 people in the week leading up to Election Day. And we keep doing the survey. We keep asking questions. We keep fielding the survey right until the moment polls close in a state.
And so what we're able to do is use that very large sample to paint a really accurate, a really deep picture of the electorate so we can try to understand it both in real time on election night but in the days and weeks after to have something to go back to to sort of tell the story about why. That's what we like to say. It's the tool that we use to tell the why story of Election Day.
DETROW: So, David, let's be honest here. There's so much pressure on so many election administrators all across the country. I mean, the AP - there's a lot of pressure on you guys too. So many news outlets look to the AP to see who won, to see what the votes are. How are you dealing with all that pressure this year?
SCOTT: Well, you know, I like that you mentioned the election officials in this country and all that they're having to do. And they're having to do it in really tough circumstances this year because of the pandemic. And so the first thing I'd like to say is let's give them the time to count the vote and be patient with them as they are counting the vote. They're working late at night under tough conditions to make sure that we're all able to cast our ballots. Some of them are volunteers, poll workers. And so giving them the space and us having patience for them to do their work, I think, is something that's important to remember.
You know, and the other thing that you ask about is sort of like what we do. We're doing the same thing that we do in - every two years and whenever we call races. I've been telling folks who ask me, are you being more cautious this year, it's hard to dial it up from a 10, right? We're always cautious. We're always careful. We always work together as a team to check each other's work, and then we check it again. No one makes that decision that a race is over and the trailing candidates can't catch up in isolation.
And so we're going to work our process this year. It's worked for us in the past. We feel good about it, and we're going to do our work on election night. We're not going to worry about what anyone else is doing that night. The numbers are going to come in, and we're going to analyze them. And we're going to look at what the people have said and their votes, and then we'll tell you who won.
KHALID: Fair enough. So you mentioned, though, a couple of times, you know, this need to stay up late. Scott and I will also be staying up very late, possibly not sleeping, into Morning Edition. What do you do? I'm curious, what do you do to stay up on Election Night - just lots of coffee?
SCOTT: There was a time in - I think it was 2014. I posted a picture on whatever social media system I was using back then of, like, 14 half-empty or half-full Diet Coke cans on my desk. It'll probably be something like that again.
KHALID: Well, David, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.
SCOTT: Yeah. It was a lot of fun to talk to you all, and good luck on Election Night.
KHALID: Appreciate it. I'm sure we'll be in touch. Remember that you all can support us on the podcast by supporting your local NPR station. To get started, just head to donate.npr.org/politics.
I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the 2020 campaign.
DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I also cover the campaign.
KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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