Election night in America — the graphics packages, the theme songs, but most importantly, the slow and methodical declaration of who has won each state by the news networks. Every election, we more or less take in faith when the various networks call the different states for the Democrats or the Republicans, but how is an election actually called? And how might 2016 be different?
First things first, it’s important to go over how an election is actually called: each state tallies their votes, which is certified by their local election officials, usually the secretary of state. The state then sends its slate of electors to Washington D.C., where they meet in December to cast the “real” votes for president in the Electoral College.
But we’re far too impatient a nation for that! We want to know NOW (if our obsession with polls has taught us anything, it’s that we’d like to know the future immediately). Fortunately, we have a news media that is more than willing to accommodate our desire — in a spirit of frankly surprising cooperation, CNN, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN and the Associated Press all pool resources and form what’s called the National Election Pool, which is essentially a big pile of data that they all draw from to make their predictions.
The data includes exit polls, as well as projection data and unofficial vote tallies, all of which swirls into a magical mixture that statisticians and news editors use to make the official calls. Often these “decision desks” are isolated from the rest of the news organization, and people in the room even have their phones taken away so they can’t be influenced by other media outlets (or their own journalists).
This insulation is important: in 2012, when Karl Rove challenged Fox News’ decision desk’s conclusion that Barack Obama had won Ohio (and therefore, the presidency), Megyn Kelly marched down to the decision desk room on live TV to interview them.
“We’re actually quite comfortable with the call on Ohio,” said Arnon Mishkin, who heads up Fox’s decision desk, when Kelly spoke to him.
Still, two new developments make this year trickier for both networks and viewers.
First, several web-based news organizations will be approaching their election coverage differently and releasing information earlier than the networks, possibly even before the polls in various states have closed. Slate is partnering with internet startup VoteCastr and will be providing data throughout the day, though according to their Editor-in-Chief Julia Turner, they won’t be “calling states” the way the networks do. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed will be teaming with Decision Desk HQ, a “grassroots” media company, to turn the normally secretive decision desks inside out, making them transparent to their audience.
But second, and maybe more unpredictably, we’re at the tail-end of an election that has come with more media skepticism than ever — certainly not helped by Donald Trump’s love/hate relationship with them. In an article in the New York Times, network executives and anchors acknowledged that the electorate’s potential lack of faith could spell trouble. “There’s no question that there’s added scrutiny this year of the entire system,” CBS News executive editor Steve Capus told the publication.
At the end of the night though — and let’s hope it’s actually night, and not, say, deep dawn… or December — short of any razor-thin recounts, or temper tantrums from a losing candidate (whomever it may be), we’ll hopefully have a president-elect, and can focus on what really matters: keeping our fingers crossed that Diane Sawyer is back in fine form on ABC.