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early voter turnout and elections

November 4, 2020

How Do News Outlets Decide When to Call An Election?

The AP says it does not speculate when it comes to projected the winner. How are they able to predict the winner of a state so accurately?


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The pandemic and the potential for record voter turnout are setting the stage for an election like no other we have seen. But what happens after the polling places close? The NewsHour has always relied upon the Associated Press to call race winners. As predicted, no clearer winner of the election emerged on Election Day. Read the summary, watch the video and answer the discussion questions. To read the transcript of the video above, click here

The Associated Press is a news service that many networks and other news outlets rely on for reporting. The AP begins conducting research on voting demographics months before Election Day to prepare for projections based on partial vote counts. As the votes come in on Election Day, the AP will call a state for a particular candidate once they believe the candidate has won the state (Read this article about the 2000 presidential race when the AP said Florida was too close to call, but television networks announced the projected winner incorrectly twice times.).

election projections and electoral map
SOURCE: AP – Results as of: Nov 04, 2020 7:32 AM EST | Next Update: 7:34 AM EST

Discussion Questions

Warm up questions: Have your students identify the 5Ws and an H:

  • Who officially decides when states have been won by one candidate or the other?
  • What is the role of the media in calling elections?
  • When and where does the AP news service decide to call elections?
  • Why is it important not to call elections too early?
  • How do state results determine the outcomes of national elections?

Then have students share with the class or through a Learning Management System (LMS).

Focus Questions

  1. Do you think news outlets should project winners before all votes are counted? Why or why not?
  2. The AP says it does not speculate when it comes to projected the winner. How are they able to predict the winner of a state so accurately?
  3. What are some ways you can think of that would make vote counting and reporting faster while maintaining fairness and accuracy?

Media Literacy: How do you decide what information you find online about election results is reliable or not?

  • If interested in a lesson exploring how to spot disinformation online, click here.

Dig Deeper: Many experts have noted that this presidential election may be contested long after Election Day itself. There is a good chance states may not have a complete and accurate count of votes by November 3, partly due to record turnouts, record vote by mail and new COVID-19 precautions. President Donald Trump and others have already suggested they will challenge counts of ballots after Election Day. But what would a contested election look like? Use this lesson to explore how previous contested elections shaped history, including the contest of 2000.

Republished with permission from PBS NewsHour Extra.

PBS NewsHour Classroom

PBS NewsHour Classroom helps teachers and students identify the who, what, where and why-it-matters of the major national and international news stories.

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