Data reporting during the 2020 US election

On November third, 2020, election day marked the end of a long campaign process for Donald Trump and Joe Biden to remain or become president of the United States. But, after the polls closed, for cable TV news networks, newspapers and other media outlets, it meant that work was only just getting started. As ballots were being counted, millions of people in the country, but also around the world, relied on data collected by decision desks and reporting of news media to get an understanding of who was leading in the race.

But people who were following multiple news outlets might have noticed something strange and confusing in the data. For a long time, there was a difference in the number of electoral votes called for Biden: New York Times, CNN and others had Biden on 253 electoral votes, while Associated Press (AP) and Fox News already had called the state of Arizona for Biden, which meant that they projected him on 264, meaning that he was very close to the 270 threshold that is needed to become the elected president. How can there be a difference in the data if everyone is reporting on counted votes?

The role of media

As mentioned, the media play an important role in reporting election results. First of all, major networks received large numbers of viewers: on election night, Fox News scored the highest average of 14.1 million viewers (CNN 9.4 million, MSNBC 7.6 million) and during the long counting process in the week after, the continuous live reporting of CNN reached an average of 5.9 million viewers, with Fox News coming in at a close second (5.7 million).

Secondly, across borders and oceans, international news media also use data from American outlets to report on incoming election results. In the Netherlands, for instance, NOS, RTL and De Volkskrant, among others, used AP’s data. However, CNN is the most widely available news channel in cable operators’ subscriptions. This means that people who have installed the NOS or RTL news app and also watched CNN saw the confusing difference in electoral votes.

And lastly, news media have a big impact on general sentiment. Right after CNN projected Biden as the winner, people started to celebrate (in not very socially distanced crowds) and leaders from other countries congratulated Biden and elected vice president Harris, even though counting was still going on and results were not official.

How can differences in data exist?

Major news networks have their own election desks consisting of researchers and analysts who call in voting results and make calculations based on this data. For instance, AP has 4,000 reporters at local counting locations across the country. The voting results they report are checked by 800 others to see if it is consistent with data on states’ websites.

“AP’s race callers are staff who are deeply familiar with the states where they declare winners. Most have called races in a state for many years.” - Associated Press

What is important to note, is that states are not only called based on counted ballots and the number of uncounted ballots left but also based on previous results. For instance, there are states which mostly vote republican, and other states are known democratic strongholds. AP also uses a system called VoteCast, which “combines interviews with a random sample of registered voters drawn from state voter files with self-identified registered voters selected using nonprobability approaches.” VoteCast, along with Fox News Voter Analysis, is used to call states sometimes even as soon as polls close, without actually conducting real results.

Is this a problem?

Misleading data

As explained, races like this election are not just called based on simple math (counting votes, see who’s leading and how many votes are left to count), but also data unrelated to the election results, such as previous results or interviews. Not using actual election data can be misleading, as the process might not be fully transparent and known by the public. It also causes confusion about what is the “real” result.

Although AP does not directly use exit polls anymore to call election results, other outlets have continued doing so. Reflecting on the 2000 election, academic and journalist Joan Konner (2003) recommended to only use exit poll data for analyses and to call states only based on actual voting results.

Factors such as bias should also be considered. In his book The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology, Chris Chambers (2017) calls confirmation bias “arguably the most powerful fallacy in human reasoning” means that people look for evidence that confirms their own beliefs, while also discrediting things that aren’t in line (Chambers, 2017). This means that people might choose to watch the channel that projects results most in favor of their desired outcome, even though they might not be the most accurate.

Results of a survey show that there are two news sources for political and election reporting that are clearly the biggest: Fox News and CNN. The survey also showed that 93% of the people who said Fox is their main source identify as republican, and 79% of people who picked CNN as their main source identify as democrat. Scientific research found that Fox News viewers enjoy watching news that is in line with their beliefs (Morris, 2005). Results from a study also showed that watching Fox leads to more republican voting (Martin & Yurukoglu, 2017).

I think reporting on election results should be more transparent and, as every election is different (in 2000 for example, in Florida, most mail-in ballots were republican and this year they generally skewed more democratic) projections should be based on actual election results only.

Chambers, C. (2017). The 7 deadly sins of psychology. A manifesto for reforming the culture of scientific practice (Chapter 1: The sin of bias). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Konner, J. (2003). The Case for Caution. Public Opinion Quarterly, 67(1), 5–18.
Martin, G. J., & Yurukoglu, A. (2017). Bias in Cable News: Persuasion and Polarization. American Economic Review, 107(9), 2565–2599.
Morris, J. S. (2005). The Fox News Factor. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(3), 56–79.×05279264

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