Why has the election been called by the media when some states are still tabulating ballots? That’s actually normal. Let’s talk about why.
In 2016, the media called the election for Donald Trump at 2:30 a.m. ET, in the early morning hours. Hillary Clinton phoned the new president-elect to concede approximately five minutes later.
And yet, weeks afterward, some votes still remained uncounted. It just didn’t matter to anyone, because those votes weren’t going to impact the result of the election. States very often take a couple weeks to certify their results, and the race is always called before the last ballot has been counted. But now, in a climate of heightened political tensions and amid allegations of fraud, the time it takes to verify, count, and certify ballots is getting more attention.
So, why did CNN, The New York Times, and Fox all call the race for Joe Biden on Saturday, even though some ballots are still being counted? Is it possible those uncounted ballots will swing the race? And what’s going to happen next?
How Media Calls Work
News outlets call a race once the winner is clear. They don’t wait until every vote is counted and the result certified — that’s the job of county and state officials. The media’s job is to communicate the result to the public once it’s obvious. They make their (non-binding) projections when they are certain that the remaining ballots won’t change the result of the race — and if they’re wrong, their reputation is on the line. They decide when to make calls in a few ways.
Some states are so lopsided that they’re called almost as soon as polls close. We must count every vote in California and Kentucky before the election results are certified, of course, but given the political leanings of those states, reporters are confident in what the final result will be. This year, South Carolina was called for Trump while Biden was leading the vote count. The calls were accurate — Trump won the state by nearly 12 points.
For other states, races are called once a candidate’s lead is insurmountable, based on what we know about still-to-be-counted votes. We can be pretty certain that the votes in Clark County, NV (which includes Las Vegas) are going to be bluer than the rest of the state average, or that DeKalb County, GA is overwhelmingly blue while Cherokee County, GA is overwhelmingly red. When we look at the county-by-county or even precinct-by-precinct data that shows where votes have been counted and where votes are still being counted, we can draw inferences about whether the margin is going to widen or narrow in a given state. If you pay close attention to the data, you can draw pretty accurate conclusions well before reporters call the race. In 2016, Nate Cohn of The New York Times started drafting his “Trump Wins” piece at 9:22 p.m., about five hours before the official call. This year, I said on Wednesday morning that it was probable Biden would hit 290 electoral votes and that he might go as high as 306. (Turns out that 306 is probably where we’re going to end up.)
Occasionally, calls are made too early. This year, Fox called Arizona for Biden on election night, and the Trump campaign was irate — and reasonably so, given the number of outstanding ballots, the margins in Maricopa County, and the timing of when Arizona processed their mail-in ballots. As I’m writing this, it looks like Fox was correct and that Arizona will, indeed, go for Biden, but neither The New York Times nor CNN are confident enough to call it.
Less often, calls end up being wrong altogether and leave the news outlets with egg on their face. (Or, in the case of Florida in 2000, leaving the news outlets with an entire omelette on their face, as NBC’s Tom Brokaw observed in the aftermath.)
What About This Year?
Though the 2020 election will probably not come down to Pennsylvania, the race call did. Once Pennsylvania was called, news outlets projected that Biden had more than 270 electoral votes, which meant he’d won. The votes still being counted were mostly in Philadelphia (which leans blue), and they were absentee-by-mail ballots, which leaned Democratic this year because the Republican urged his supporters to vote in person and the Democrat urged his supporters to vote however they were most comfortable.
Let me be clear: news outlets waited longer than they needed to. They were conservative with this call. They waited until Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania was at .5%, even though anyone keeping an eye on the data knew Biden had won the second he took the lead. The results that were still coming in were overwhelmingly blue and were going to stay that way.
Likewise, Georgia still hasn’t been called, just in case the upcoming recount changes the result. A change isn’t impossible, but it’s unlikely and unprecedented. (There have been at least thirty-one statewide recounts since 2000. Not one has changed the outcome of a race in which the initial margin of victory was greater than 300 votes; the current margin of victory in Georgia is over 10,000 votes.)
There will be recounts and court cases and perhaps even some investigations to see if any tangible evidence can be found of widespread voter fraud. All of those challenges will be resolved by December 8.
Democrats should welcome those challenges as an opportunity to reassure all reasonable people that Biden won fair and square. Let there be recounts. Let Republicans present evidence of fraud in court. It will not change the result — and if it did, Democrats must take the high ground and respect that result. It would be a bruising battle to lose, but four years of any president, even another four years of Donald Trump, will not damage American democracy more than would a loss of respect for the outcomes of our elections.
Republicans also must accept the results of the election, and should pay attention to real evidence presented in court and dismiss unsubstantiated allegations pinballing around social media. Republican lawyers will present their best arguments — if they think something is too minor to impact the result or too unsubstantiated to even try to argue, it’s not worth anyone’s time.
And all Americans must be responsible with what we say and what we believe. A claim is not automatically true just because it comes from our political tribe or favors our preferred candidate. There are people working overtime to sow chaos online. We must all vet the things we hear. If we’re concerned about how any of this will be resolved in court, we should read actual court opinions as they’re issued and read transcripts of the legal proceedings on the questions that most concern us— we can’t just repeat something we heard someone else say or take a potentially out-of-context photo at face value.
We have a duty to democracy and a duty to truth. Let’s all approach this next month with cool heads, a willingness to look seriously and transparently at the data, and a firm conviction to respect the process.