Walking back to the hotel from AP headquarters after dark, you see the Empire State Building looming over 34th Street, its peak bathed in red, white and blue lighting. It’s a dramatic shift from the orange and white color scheme projected just days ago for Halloween. Quite a sight on election eve. We spent the day reviewing reports, studying poll data, scanning breaking news from hundreds of hometown papers, and testing the multitude of vote tabulation screens available to us on election night.
Since the Associated Press is the only organization to tally the entire national vote on election night–as well as every individual contested race in every state–there’s a huge challenge in not screwing things up tomorrow.
So our job as QC analysts is to look for trouble on election night. We look for numbers that have been reported by thousands of stringers, clerks and election professionals that look questionable, scary or just plain bad, and initiate investigation of them.
What’s a bad number? A high vote total for Obama in a county that skews high in GOP registration. A vote total too high for the number of precincts the report represents. Any large vote for a third party candidate not in his or her home county. A race that shows nearly identical totals for two candidates in race where one was clearly favored by polls and other data–although it’s possible early in the evening, when only a few precincts are counted, that candidates who will ultimately win can trail badly.
Each state is assigned a team of analysts who scan the vote totals as they are published and released to electronic and print media. Even before the votes are published, they are run through checks based on information gleaned from each county in the country–how many voters are registered, how many voted in the last three or four elections, how many voted absentee, how many voted GOP and how many voted Dem or third party. Parameters for each county in the nation are built into the software accepting the votes so anytime a vote report violates a historic trend or exceeds the possible specifications for the county, it’s held until it can be verified by the reporter calling it in or the county official releasing it.
The bottom line, no one person, or even a team of individuals, could cook vote totals without bells and whistles built into the system firing, or other individuals with personal or researched knowledge of the state raising question about accuracy. A bad total may make it onto your TV screen at home, but probably not for long. When that happens, a C flag is set for that state–the C meaning caution–which tells all the decision desk experts that there may be issues with the tabulation, and no calls should be made for that state until the C flag is removed, which only happens when the correct number(s) are confirmed.
Still, over the course of an evening, questionable votes can creep into the system, or trends can slowly emerge that challenge expectations. With record turnouts expected in virtually every state, traditional limits on vote totals have been expanded to accept more than 100% of previous totals, but the ceiling is not unlimited. So wherever possible, QC analysts are individuals with hometown-type knowledge of the states they’re assigned, or they have worked the state in previous elections.
Besides obama and mccain, candidates getting a lot of attention are the Mitches in KY and IN (senator and governor, respectively) and Al Franken. If either or both Mitches run badly in these two states (which are the first to close and post vote totals) it will indicate a long night for GOP loyalists. If both win, McCain still has a shot at winning. And a lot of folks would like to see Franken win just to hear his victory speech.