Perspectives, News & Opinions From The Researchers At Edison

What to Watch for on Election Night

Entry by Tom Webster | Thursday, October 28th, 2004 | Permalink

by Larry Rosin, President

As you sit down to watch or listen to election returns roll in next Tuesday evening, we at Edison Media Research will have already been at work for many hours collecting Exit Poll information and helping all the major television networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC) prepare their projections of the outcome. Here are some things to keep in mind as you watch, and to help make you the smartest person in the room at your Election Night party.

1) Prepare for a long night

As of this writing (only a few days before the election) we believe that the chances of a definitive “call” for who will be the president by 2 am Eastern Time is a 50/50 chance at best. There is a significant chance that we won’t know who won by noon on Wednesday, November 3rd. There is a small but quite real chance we won’t know who won for weeks.

2) Don’t get fooled by early returns

One of the aspects of Election Night viewing that people find the most confusing is watching the tote boards the networks display showing the vote with say, “31% of precincts reporting”. Your preferred candidate may be winning at that point, but the networks often do a less-than-adequate job of explaining which votes have been counted. In Ohio, for instance, Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) tends to report extremely late. So there is a chance one will see Bush leading in the vote count throughout the night, only to be eclipsed by Kerry at the wire as heavily Democratic Cleveland’s votes come in.

3) Absentee and Provisional Votes will matter as never before

This year, more Americans will have voted before Election Day than in any previous election. Fully 20% of all votes are expected to come in via absentee ballot, mail-in ballots in certain states, or early voting programs.
Each state employs different procedures on the counting of absentee ballots, listing all the peculiarities could fill a book (and in fact, we have prepared just such a book). But the fact that so many votes will not be submitted in the traditional Election Day manner will make projecting the outcome all the more challenging.
Meanwhile, in all but six states (those that allow same-day voter registration), we are very likely to see controversy created by a new concept: “Provisional Votes.” This was mandated by HAVA – the Help America Vote Act. If someone shows up at a voting location and his or her name is not on the voter rolls, that person will now be able to cast a “Provisional Vote”, so that if this person’s registration can be verified the vote will count. Given that there is no precedent for this system, it is unlikely to be administered well. Further, the provisional votes will not be counted on Election Night, and their use will probably be litigated if the provisional votes might tip a close election. Provisional Votes may well be the ‘hanging chads’ of 2004.

4) The Top of the Hour Action

Plan your bathroom breaks between :50 and :58 of each hour. By agreement of the networks, no state can be “called” (the networks love horse-racing analogies) until all of the polls have closed in that state. Thus, as polls close, the networks will start rapidly calling all the states with clear outcomes (as based on our exit polls).
At 7:30 and 8:30 eastern, be by your set or radio as well. Several states, including all-important Ohio, close their polls on the half-hour.
As most people know, a candidate needs 270 Electoral Votes to claim the Presidency. The poll closing times roll out as follows:

7:00 PM - 58 Electoral Votes
7:30 PM - 40 EVs
8:00 PM - 171 EVs
8:30 PM - 6 EVs
9:00 PM - 159 EVs
10:00 PM - 20 EVs
11:00 PM - 81 EVs
1:00 AM - 3 EVs

5) Nebraska, Maine and Colorado

Now here’s some trivia to help you win a bet at your Election Night party. “Name the states that don’t necessarily give all their Electors to the winner.”
The answer: Nebraska, Maine, and maybe Colorado.
Nebraska and Maine each employ the same scheme: Two of their Electors go to the winner in the state, and then the winner within each Congressional District gets one Elector. In Nebraska, this is likely irrelevant, Bush is exceedingly likely to take all five of that state’s votes. In Maine, polling indicates that while Kerry is likely to win the state, he could lose one of the two CD’s. Thus, Kerry may only get three, instead of four Electoral Votes from Maine.
Finally there is the unique case of Colorado. Currently, Colorado is like the other 48 states and DC, they give all their Electors to the popular vote winner. However, Democrats in Colorado have put a referendum on the ballot to change the way Electoral Votes are apportioned there. If the referendum passes and is deemed legal, Electoral Votes in Colorado would be granted proportionally based on the vote. Thus if, say, Bush wins narrowly there, he would get five Electoral Votes, and Kerry four. The networks are not going to be able to confidently count Colorado until it knows the outcome of the referendum.

6) How do they know?

While the networks are promising to be a bit more transparent on this point, most Election coverage viewers are still mystified when the networks say things like “With 2% of the precincts reporting, we are projecting that [candidate] will win.”
How do they do that?
This is where Edison Media Research comes in. Working together with Mitofsky International, we are providing the networks with two streams of data, Exit Polls and the Quick Count.
In most states, the outcome of the Presidential election will be “callable” from the information in our Exit Polls, and these are the “top of the hour” calls.
In other states, the Exit Polls will imply that one candidate or the other is very likely to win, but there is not enough information to confidently make the call. Often, the second stream of information, the “Quick Count” can lend greater assurance. We will have people stationed at thousands of voting locations across the country. They will be calling in the results from those sample precincts as soon as the votes are counted. Our system will add this new information to the Exit Poll information, and often this is the push that makes the outcome clear.
Finally, the Associated Press will be counting all the votes. This final stream of information will be added to our system to eventually (we hope) allow a winner to be called, or at least to show that a race will go to a recount or to further discussion.
This article is being written on Wednesday, October 27, six days before the election. As of today, no one has any idea who will win. Election Night promises to make for extremely exciting television or radio.

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