Posted in Behind the News

Understanding the election: Why this year is different

, by Lauren Easton

The coronavirus pandemic means more Americans than ever before will cast their ballots ahead of Election Day. Deputy Managing Editor for Operations David Scott, who oversees AP’s race calling, explains how this may affect when we will know who won the 2020 U.S. presidential election:

Why is this year’s election different than years past?

There are many reasons, but perhaps none bigger than 2020 being the year in which voters truly redefine the meaning of Election Day. For decades, in each passing general election, more Americans than in the previous election cast their ballots before polls opened on Election Day. The coronavirus pandemic has greatly accelerated that trend.

In 10 states, this election will be conducted almost entirely by mail. North Carolina is not one of those states, but by the end of August, more than 500,000 people there had requested a mail ballot – 10 times more than in 2016. In every state, not just those holding an all-mail election, there are ways for voters to make their pick for president during early voting or with an absentee ballot. Many states have also expanded options for mail and early voting in the wake of the pandemic.

It appears likely this will be the first election in American history in which more than half of the electorate has their ballot in the box before Election Day itself. A year ago, AP’s story about the campaign’s final day might have read, “Voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s elections …” This year, instead, it will say, “Voting concluded Tuesday for president, U.S. Senate and members of Congress …”

Amid this historic shift in how and when America votes, it’s remarkable that both campaigns are openly raising concerns about the legitimacy of the election. For example, President Donald Trump has focused on baseless accusations of fraud involving mail-in voting, part of an effort former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign says is designed to sow doubt about the results if a winner can’t be declared on Election Day. Biden and his allies, meanwhile, are raising concerns about suppression of Democratic voters, including Republicans using poll monitors to intimidate voters.

Vote-by-mail ballots are shown in a sorting tray at the King County Elections headquarters in Renton, Washington, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

How does this shift to more advance voting change how AP calls races?

The Decision Desk team has always paid a lot of attention to the provenience of the vote totals. There are clear partisan differences in when voters cast a ballot and the method by which they do so. Voting rules also play a role. We need to account for when election officials start counting advance votes, and if they’re counted separately or alongside ballots cast on Election Day. We’ve always had to take these factors into account when deciding when to call a race. This year, we’ll just have to do it in more states than ever before.

We’re helped a great deal by the insight we get from AP VoteCast, our survey of the American electorate. This replacement for the exit poll was built specifically to help us understand an electorate that no longer primarily votes in person at neighborhood polling places on Election Day itself. This research will tell us how many people voted early, among other things, helping us understand the shape of the race.

There have been worries about attempts to interfere with election results. How is AP ensuring the results it provides to its thousands of customers – and the world – are accurate?

The short answer is that we use best practices from across the media and technology industries to design, build and protect the systems we use to do our work counting the vote and covering the election. We have multiple checks and redundancies in place to ensure the integrity of the vote count.

When it comes to finding out who won, what should voters expect on election night?

Regardless of all the changes brought on by the pandemic, what matters most when it comes to knowing how quickly we’ll be able to call the winner of the White House is this: how closely contested is the race for president?

In 1996, Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole by 8.5 percentage points in the popular vote and by 220 Electoral College votes. AP called that race at 9 p.m. ET on Election Day. Four years ago, Trump lost the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points and bested Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College by 77 votes. AP was first to call Trump the winner, but couldn’t do so until 2:29 a.m. ET on Wednesday.

What about this year? It’s far too soon to know how close this year’s race will be. To be sure, not knowing who wins before midnight doesn’t mean something is wrong or that anything nefarious is taking place. It may mean only that the race is close, or that election officials are taking more time than our impatient minds might like to count the boom in advance votes. What’s certain is that we’ll make every effort to declare the 2020 White House winner as quickly as we can, but won’t until we’re certain we know who will next sit behind the Resolute Desk.

Washington Bureau Chief Julie Pace talks more about what makes this year’s election unique in this AP video:

See more details about how AP counts the vote and calls races on our website.

Follow AP's coverage of the 2020 election.