In September and October of 2020, we hosted four conversations with The Associated Press to discuss how AP journalists are covering the voting process, making election calls, using polling to tell stories about the electorate, and responding to election misinformation. The recordings of each of those conversations are included below, with quick lessons and resources to inform your own reporting.
Decision Desk: Declaring Election Winners in a Global Pandemic
David Scott, AP deputy manager for operations, and Stephen Olemacher, AP election decision editor, discuss how the AP is making calls on contests this year.
Here are a few takeaways from the discussion:
- The differences among states in how individuals will vote and when those votes get counted may make certain election metrics, like the number of precincts reporting, less useful and perhaps even deceptive — especially in jurisdictions where Election Day votes are counted separately from votes cast in advance of Election Day.
- Voting patterns will likely be different across states, due to a patchwork of rules and timelines. The states that begin processing or counting mail ballots before Election Day may report results sooner than the states that don’t process mail ballots until Election Day. Other states may see higher levels of provisional ballots cast, which are verified and counted after Election Day.
- It’s not new for election results to not be available on Election Night in some races and some jurisdictions.
- There’s a difference between contests that are too close to call and just too early to call based on the available data. In the 2018 Arizona Senate race, for example, McSally led Sinema by 13,000 votes on Election Night. AP called the race for Sinema six days later as additional mail and early votes were counted. Sinema eventually won the race by almost 3 percentage points. The contest wasn’t especially close, but there wasn’t enough information available on Election Night to make a call.
- Emphasize explanatory reporting now until Election Day about the rules and processes in place in your jurisdictions — what’s changed and what’s the same about voting and election administration this year.
Counting the Vote: When to Expect Election Results
David Scott, AP deputy manager for operations, and Christina A. Cassidy, AP state government reporter, discuss how the AP is covering voting processes across the country.
Here are a few takeaways from the discussion:
- For the first time in history, the Associated Press is expecting more than half of voters will vote in advance. The AP is taking this into consideration, along with a whole bunch of other factors, as part of their deployment of resources. The primaries were a big test of these systems. Counting the vote is the biggest act in journalism with around 4,000 bylines coming through the work of stringers who relay election results to the AP throughout the country.
- In some ways, this is an unprecedented election. In other ways, it isn’t. Problems and inequities with voting existed before 2020, which isn’t an excuse but more of a reflection of the reality of elections in America. This means the AP and other journalists have dealt with many of these problems before. Mistakes do happen, and misinformation is prevalent, but none of that is new.
- Impacts of COVID-19: There will be more absentee ballots than ever, which means there will be some administrative challenges as a result of essentially running two elections, one in person and another by mail. There could be mail delivery delays and last-minute poll worker cancellations. A shutdown of a polling place or an election office could be brought on by COVID-19. This is why scenario planning and understanding your local electoral landscape is crucial.
- Understand the pressure points in your state and county: The sheer number of advance ballots will be a factor, especially in states (e.g. Pennsylvania or Wisconsin) where those ballots are not allowed to be processed until Election Day. Deadlines for absentee ballots might be fluid in certain states depending on litigation and other last-minute changes. Postmarks are not always being consistently applied in a way that makes them an accurate timestamp for when a ballot was sent. There might be delays in mail delivery. The absentee ballot verification process (i.e. examining the ballot, ensuring voter eligibility, matching a signature, etc.) is also time-consuming for election workers and tedious for some voters, leading to the possibility of an inordinate number of ballot rejections this year. Some states require a notary or witness signature and a copy of an ID, and only 18 states require voters to be notified if there’s a signature discrepancy that can be corrected. Generally, provisional ballots, which are a fail-safe for voters whose eligibility is uncertain, are the last to be counted.
- Use those pressure points as a guide for explanatory, public-service reporting: There are plenty of angles to cover and ways to pre-bunk misinformation about the counting process. Separating what’s normal from what’s taking a little longer or is actually abnormal and problematic requires nuance and an understanding of how this process works. For more information on the counting process from the AP, visit their website and read their FAQ about the counting process for additional insight. (Side note: Remember that data voids are the empty spaces online where misinformation thrives due to a lack of good or recent information — try to fill those spaces with your own reporting by imagining what your audience has questions about).
Polling Best Practices: Using Voter Surveys to Tell Good Stories
Julie Pace, AP Washington bureau chief, and Emily Swanson, director of public opinion research discuss how the AP incorporates and contextualizes public polling and opinion research in its reporting.
Here are a few takeaways from the discussion:
- Individual polls are just a snapshot in time. AP works to avoid leading with the horse race dynamics suggested by individual polls. Diving deeper into individual polls, however, can be helpful, by identifying what issues are important to voters and how voters feel about the candidates and their handling of key issues.
- As more voters vote early or by mail, traditional exit polling will be less instructive in capturing voter sentiment.
- Polling has gotten a bad rap after 2016. What lessons did we learn from that election? First, the national polls were actually pretty close to the final result, especially in the last few weeks before Election Day. Second, some statewide polls, especially in critical battleground states, were off, often due to non-response from certain demographic groups and inadequate weighting of respondents relative to those states’ population. FiveThirtyEight goes into additional detail in how polling has changed since 2016.
- It can be difficult to evaluate the quality of individual polls or even pollsters. But, credible polls are often more transparent about their methodology, including by sharing how they’ve conducted the poll, how the sample was selected, the dates of the poll, how the poll was weighted, the wording and order of questions, and the margin of error. A random sample is critical. For polls conducted by phone, it’s critical that the methodology includes mostly cell phones. Polls from campaigns or other partisan groups may also be less reliable relative to other pollsters.
- What questions can’t polling answer well? Who’s going to turn out to vote or why certain voting blocs preferred one candidate over another is difficult to assess through polling and depends on direct engagement with voters to establish that context.
- The margin of error in a head-to-head poll of candidates applies to both candidates, meaning that a 4% lead by a candidate from a poll with a margin of error of 3% is not necessarily outside the poll’s margin of error. Pew Research goes into more detail on this issue here.
Combating Election Misinformation With the Facts
Amanda Barrett, AP deputy managing editor for news coordination and newsroom talent development, and Karen Mahabir, AP fact check and misinformation editor, discuss how to respond to false and misleading election information.
- Three pillars support the AP’s work on misinformation: fact-checking via AP Fact Check, which serves as a vehicle for verifying what public figures are saying; debunking of digital misinformation in English and Spanish; and reporting on the landscape of misinformation and report on the mechanics of why and how misinformation spreads.
The fact-checking process
- Finding material that qualifies as misinformation is half the battle: The AP tracks public statements from officials (speeches, debates, tweets, campaign literature or ads); reviews claims that threaten the integrity of its reporting (probably a familiar issue for many local news outlets); and uses social media tools like CrowdTangle, NewsWhip or HootSuite to see what stories are gaining traction. The misinformation team frequently confer with experts in misinformation, something TEN does as well, to see what’s trending.
- After a claim is identified, reporters at the AP begin to examine it: Who made it? What was said? Was it a “clean” claim that is easily tested, or something more complicated? How much attention is it getting, and does it require a response? If it passes muster, they will identify the crux of their fact check: What would the first two sentences of your fact check say? What would you say is false? What do you need to debunk or verify the claim? Who do you need to call?
- The question of when to respond, the misinformation “tipping point,” is a tough one. Some questions AP reporters will ask: Is it in the public interest? Is the information harmful? Could it undermine voting? Is the claim getting more attention or spreading? How much risk is there that doing a story or fact-check will amplify misinformation? Is amplification via news stories part of the strategy of the misinformation agent?
Election misinformation trends
- Election misinformation is fueled by uncertainty: With lots of questions – brought on by the election, the economy and the pandemic – comes a breeding ground for misinformation. Some of the specific topics that the AP is looking at are the coronavirus, racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, the voting process, candidates’ fitness to hold office and conspiracy theories.
- Procedural questions about election administration and out-of-context claims, statements and reactions from candidates or public officials are rife with misinformation potential.
- The AP launched an initiative, Vision 2020, to answer common questions about the 2020 U.S. presidential election. This is a good model for explanatory reporting on election processes. The process is a central focus of this election cycle.
Preparing your newsroom
- You don’t need your own AP Fact Check or fact-checking section: You can do more explanatory reporting ahead of time or incorporate fact-checking into stories already being written. Both are also great ways to handle more complicated claims – like when the perception of facts, sometimes as a result of partisanship, is in dispute. For example, some might have seen long lines at the one polling place in Jefferson County, Kentucky as voter suppression when additional context and analysis proved it to be a potential model for success – for the most part.
- Read the work of others and critically analyze text claims: Reading other fact checks is crucial preparatory work. Headlines, bylines, sources and quotations in text claims are good markers to examine for misinformation. Is there missing context in the story?
- Do some prognosticating on misinformation (especially ahead and after events): Having the facts you need is important but understanding what’s on the mind of your readers will make your reporting and debunking more relevant.