Behind the curtain: How News4Jax reports election results, calls states

An employee at the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office conducts logic and accuracy testing of equipment used for counting ballots in September. (Lynne Sladky, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – News4Jax tries to let viewers know how we gather and report news on big stories. That is never more important than our coverage of this election amid record voter interest and nonstop assault of information — some of it deliberate misinformation and some just social media shares of things that aren’t 100% true.

Given the high interest in the presidential race, the complicating factor of strong early voting and President Donald Trump’s warnings about potential fraud, News4Jax is making extra effort to provide transparency to our process and decision-making.

On election night, we’ve partnered with The Associated Press, one of several news organizations that tabulate votes independently from counties and states across America, and we’ll use their data and recommendations when it’s time to declare winners in statewide, congressional and legislative races. AP’s calls inform our independent decision.

News4Jax also collects race results from counties in our Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia viewing area and the secretary of state offices of both states. We’re giving viewers access to watch the results add up in more than 200 races.

Results of every race on your ballot and beyond

Key counties are watched to see how the numbers compare with party enrollments and trends in previous elections. A winner is declared only when it is determined that there’s no way the loser can catch up with the number of votes yet to be counted.

In 2016, the AP declared at 2:29 a.m. the morning after the election that Trump had won Wisconsin and, thus, the presidency.

“The general public has a more intense desire to understand it at a nitty-gritty level,” said Sally Buzbee, AP executive vice president and executive editor. “We don’t want to be a dark, mysterious black box of ‘We’re going to declare a winner, and we’re not going to tell you how we do it.' I don’t think that benefits us, and I don’t think it benefits democracy.”

The AP isn’t the election’s arbiter. ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News Channel have their own decision desks and their calls can create a hard-to-stop momentum. In a memorable 2012 moment, when Fox News commentators questioned a call against Republican Mitt Romney, anchor Megyn Kelly walked to the decision desk on-air to have them explain it.

On the eve of this tumultuous election, the networks are echoing Buzbee’s determination to show their work.

“Explaining to the viewers what we know and don't know will be a very important part of election night and perhaps the days after,” said Sam Feist, CNN Washington bureau chief.

Most people watching at home have little idea what goes into those decisions, said Frank Sesno, director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and a veteran journalist.

“I think the responsibility of the news organizations goes beyond transparency,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, former producer of NBC’s election night coverage and now dean of Hofstra University’s School of Communication. “It’s our obligation to explain it to viewers. Before you give the score, talk about the rules of the game.”

Race calling used to be hotly competitive, but the disaster of 2000 taught media organizations that the embarrassment of being wrong outweighed the satisfaction of being first.

The AP faced intense pressure from news organizations who depend on it in the early morning after the 2000 election, when television networks declared George W. Bush the new president. The AP didn’t do likewise, believing the vote in Florida was too close. The AP never did call the 2000 election; the Supreme Court did.

It was one of the AP’s finest moments. A reminder of how things can go wrong had come only hours earlier, when the AP and networks incorrectly called Florida for Bush’s opponent, Al Gore, and had to take it back.

The AP's vote calls were 99.8% accurate in 2016, flawless in calling presidential and congressional elections in each state.

The nation’s polarization and increased distrust of the media have made the additional openness more important, Buzbee said.

The AP’s tradition of counting votes on election night dates back to the Pony Express. The news cooperative organizes more than 4,000 reporters and stringers across the country to collect vote counts at town and county offices, who phone them in to a staff of more than 800 vote entry clerks. The raw numbers are double-checked with software that points out anomalies.