Purple Projections

Screenshot from NYTimes on vote counts across media outlets. Taken November 6, 2012.

Ever wonder how media outlets “count” electoral votes on election night even though states don’t validate their counts until weeks later (Hint: Electors don’t cast their actual votes until December)?

Or better yet, ever wonder why vote count can vary pretty drastically depending on what channel or website you’re looking at? (e.g. why CBS’ live vote count was higher than NYT’ live vote count)

Well I have. And tonight provided me with the ripe opportunity to Google around to my heart’s content on the matter.

A couple things:

  • The National Election Pool, which consists of the Associated Press, ABC News, CBS, CNN, FOX News, and NBC News, is a group that conducts the exit polls that are used in live vote count. This year, exit polls were conducted in 31 states.
  • What’s an exit poll? It’s highly secret.
  • The mechanism by which to calculate exit polls was momentarily up in the air in 2003 after two problematic elections.
  • The Pool has contracted the services of Edison Research for the exit polls since 2003.
  • Exit Poll subscriptions do NOT come cheap: Edison charges $33,000 for access to national results and up to $6,300 for state-level data. Subscribers include The New York Times, which relies on a mix of original reporting and the AP’s vote-counting operation.
  • In addition to its membership in the pool, the AP also directs 5,000 stringers who will carry out other aspects of its vote-counting operation by calling up counties for raw results as they come in.

As journalists, there’s always the age-old question of how much stake you put into projected figures–even ones based on polls of over 20,000 people and hours of calls put in directly to counties.

There’s also the side-question of whether the “average” news viewer will be able to take these figures at face value when the methodology of live vote reporting is rarely, if ever, publicly discussed.