December 31, 2004

What Associated Press promised. Does it seem like what it delivered?

What Associated Press Promised.

Does it Seem Like What it Delivered?

(Thank you to Monica for providing a copy of this incredible interview. -R.B.)

Q: What is involved in AP's election coverage?

A: From before dawn on Nov. 2 and continuing for the next 20 hours or more, thousands of people will be working fulltime on behalf of the AP to report the election. From exit poll interviewers to exit poll analysts, from vote count stringers to vote entry clerks, from bureau chiefs in the states to supervisors in New York and Washington -- all will be part of a precisely calibrated plan designed to report election results accurately.

Q: How will the votes be counted?

A: By 5 p.m. local time on Tuesday the first of nearly 5,000 stringers will have started to report to county election centers. When the first polls close, at 6 p.m. in Indiana and Kentucky, they'll be ready to start phoning in the raw vote as it is counted. They'll place their calls to one of AP's 16 vote collection centers, the largest of which is the Western Election Center in Spokane, Wash.

A total of 450 vote entry clerks will punch in the numbers on a computer screen and feed them onto the state and national election tables that will be seen in the newsrooms of AP's members.

The clerks are encouraged to ask questions to ensure accuracy. They'll ask the stringers whether there are problems in their county, question votes and precincts if results look suspect, and make sure that those working around them are asking questions, too.

The vote count and entry operation will continue in full swing across the 50 states and the District of Columbia all night, tapering down about 4 a.m. Wednesday morning and then picking up again at 9 a.m. so AP can chase down the final results and obtain 100 percent of the votes.

Q: Besides counting the votes, what else will AP be doing to in its election coverage?

A: Even before the first polls have opened at 6 a.m., the first of more than 1,500 exit poll interviewers hired by the National Election Pool's two polling firms will report for duty at randomly selected precincts. In recent years, more voting has been taking place before Election Day, so this year the exit poll operation is being supplemented with telephone surveys conducted by the National Election Pool in 13 states where absentee or early voting is most popular. By 10 a.m., the interviewers will begin calling in with the first of three reports they will file during the day. More than 300 operators will be stationed at phone centers to record their data. After processing and quality control, the first wave of data will be released in the early afternoon to AP and its exit poll partners. At AP, two teams will look at the numbers. A "decision desk" will determine which races might be called at the time polls close. An analysis team will be examining the demographics, issues and other factors that made a difference in the elections.

Q: What happens at AP while the votes are coming in?

A: AP's state bureau chiefs are armed with on-the-ground knowledge of their territory that no other national news organization can match. They will be working with the "decision desk" in Washington to determine when the races in their state can be called. That team, headed by the Washington bureau chief, has the final signoff on all top of the ticket calls, including president. It was their decision in 2000 not to follow the pack and declare George W. Bush the victor in Florida on election night

Q: Based on election history, what is the best "guess estimate" for when the presidential race will be called by AP?

A: The AP will be working diligently to determine when the race can be called, but given the apparent closeness in so many battleground states, it's difficult to predict when. An earliest estimate is sometime between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., as the vote totals accumulate.

Q: What safeguards have been introduced to protect the vote collection system should problems arise from human or technical error?

A: A series of steps have been taken to safeguard the process, involving both technology and people. AP has built into the system a series of triggers to set off alerts in case of discrepancies or apparent inconsistencies with previous voting history. Historical data has been programmed in about registered and actual voters and past voting patterns. If a clerk enters numbers that show a significant disparity from expected patterns, for example, a popup box appears on his or her screen that summons a supervisor to intervene. There are also coping mechanisms for technical problems. If one or more of AP's servers goes down, the system automatically fails over to backup servers; if an entire technical center loses power, the system seamlessly swings over to an alternate site. These "failovers" have been tested repeatedly during dry runs that have been going on every day in the month running up until the election.

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