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How the Associated Press makes election 'calls' projections for media outlets

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 6 2012 8:36 p.m. MST

Vernon Straw emerges from behind the curtain of a voting booth at the fire hall in Dunbar, Neb., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, to a waiting Terry Petersen, left. The village fire hall was too small to place cardboard voting stations, so election officials had to bring back the old style curtained voting booths.

Nati Harnik, Associated Press

On Tuesday night all the national election-night TV broadcasts displayed up-to-the-minute totals of electoral votes for the presidential race pitting Mitt Romney against Barack Obama. Each time a news anchor “called a state” for Romney or Obama — sometimes when only a tiny fraction of precincts had reported — that state’s electoral votes got added to the applicable candidate’s running total.

But who definitively decides when a state is going to swing for one candidate or the other?

In several cases, it was the Associated Press that was “calling” states and maintaining a running total of electoral votes for TV networks and online news outlets such as Politico.

Per the AP’s website, “The responsibility for calling races rests with the AP bureau chief and other experienced staff for each state. They are armed with on-the-ground knowledge of their territory that no other national news organization can match. Plus they have information on demographics, absentee and other voting history and political issues that may affect the outcome of races they must call. On election night, they are assisted by experts in AP’s Washington bureau who examine exit poll numbers and votes as they are counted. A ‘decision desk’ in Washington, headed by the Washington bureau chief, has the final signoff on all top-of-the-ticket calls.”

The AP bureau chiefs received the necessary troves of election information with the help of thousands of seasonal employees stationed at four locations.

“During election years, the Associated Press news service hires thousands of temporary workers and stations most of them at four U.S. locations,” the Seattle Times reported Tuesday. “They’ll answer phones and take information from reporters, exit-poll interviewers, stringers and others stationed near election-reporting sites around the country. … The largest of those four data centers is at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Spokane County (Wash.). Another is in downtown Spokane. The remaining two are in New York and New Jersey.”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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