clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

How do election calls get made? Two people in charge explain.

Meet the people who count votes from 4,607 places.

A person pulls open a door beside a sign that reads “vote” and has an arrow pointing left.
A sign directs voters at a polling place on November 8, 2022, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

We’ve finally made it to Election Day, so it’s time for most of us at home to sit back and watch the results roll in. But poll closings only mark the beginning of the evening for people responsible for sharing those results with the world.

Although victory is declared and concession speeches are made in many races on the evening of an election (or in the days after, depending on the state and race), the votes aren’t actually certified in any race until much later. Voting in the United States isn’t centralized by the federal government, which means it’s often up to news organizations to inform voters — and candidates — of who won a race.

Here at Vox, we use the Associated Press to report the night’s winners and losers. Many of our colleagues in television news use data from the National Election Pool to call races. Rob Farbman is the executive vice president of Edison Research, the organization that conducts polling for the NEP. According to him, it’s a highly coordinated effort that deploys people all across the country to report back on exit polling along with vote tallies from county clerks.

That data is then given to the major news networks — ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC — for them to do their own tabulations and make the calls. CBS’s election and surveys director Anthony Salvanto says this can go late into the evening and beyond, especially given the growing number of voters who cast their ballot early or by mail.

On this week’s episode of The Weeds, Farbman and Salvanto detail how votes are called and what to expect in the coming days.

Below is an excerpt of my conversation with them, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so listen to The Weeds wherever you get podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

Jonquilyn Hill

What, exactly, does the NEP do?

Rob Farbman

What we do is really in two parts. One is surveys to analyze the elections, conducting exit polls, pre-election absentee voter polls, and early voter polls. And then the other part of what we do is collecting all of the votes nationwide from every municipality in the country. And that’s 4,607 different municipalities. We’re the ones who really just collect and present the data to the television networks, to CBS, CNN, ABC, and NBC, along with our other clients. We do that tabulation for them because it’s really a very slow process in the United States.

Jonquilyn Hill

What will you be doing on Election Day?

Rob Farbman

As far as the exit polls, [I’ll be] looking for data that looks like it could be inaccurate or punched in wrong, just to make sure the survey is as accurate as it can be. And then when the polls close, it’s all about the vote count. It’s just such a gigantic logistical project collecting these votes from all over the country. We have thousands of one-day employees around the country calling in results to phone rooms. We also collect a lot of data through data feeds, which we love because it makes it a lot easier. For 2020, I believe we used nine different call centers to collect the data. I’m really just on the data quality, getting the data and making sure it’s correct. That’s more my job than projecting the winners.

Jonquilyn Hill

How do you know when to call a race?

Rob Farbman

That’s become much more complicated, particularly since 2020, when so many more people started voting absentee and by mail. That’s been part of the controversy with President Trump. [Take California, for example.] The early vote is often very different than the vote that’s counted later in California. Millions and millions of votes don’t get counted until late that night, or the next day or the next week. So in that case, the Democrats are always going to have a lot of votes in the bank late, and in other states as well that are highly Democratic. They’re more likely to be the ones that are by-mail votes that are going to be counted for many, many days and sometimes weeks.

Jonquilyn Hill

So many people distrust the election process right now. I’m wondering, has that impacted the way you all do your job? How do you handle this moment we’re in?

Rob Farbman

It’s certainly made it harder to hire the people we have to hire. We have to hire thousands of people. It’s definitely made it harder for us, but it’s mostly made it harder for election officials. Which is really sad that they feel threatened and they feel ostracized for being public servants. And generally, both Democratic and Republican election officials have always just been doing their jobs dutifully, and now they’ve been villainized. So that does trickle down to us because we rely on the cooperation of election officials for everything we do, even if it’s our right to exit poll — which it is. If they don’t want to cooperate with us, they can make things really difficult for us. And some are less cooperative just because they have to deal with other stuff: people accusing them of cheating or people hanging out at counting centers as observers or whatever they want to call themselves. So it really trickles down to us, making it more difficult for us as well.

Jonquilyn Hill

Anthony, what does your election night look like as the NEP data comes in?

Anthony Salvanto

By 5 pm, the floodgates start to open, if you will. And I will come back and brief folks and start reporting out some of the larger topics, like what was on voters’ minds and where things stand with regard to what voters are saying they want. People shouldn’t take those early exit polls as necessarily predictive of what’s going to happen, because there’s hours still left to go in voting.

By 7 pm, some of those key states have closed and then we’re rolling. We are trying to make those estimates in real time. And by the time we get into 9 pm, most of the states have closed. And in the case of the midterms, there’s a lot of focus on what the House is doing. And the way we will do that is we will start to make estimates of how many seats, at least at a minimum, each party is going to get.

Jonquilyn Hill

A lot of races are close and it takes a while. 2000, I think, will go down in infamy. 2016 did not go the way a lot of the polling said it would. And it took a while for [the] 2020 [results to come in]. I’m curious how you all navigate those really close races.

Anthony Salvanto

The thought process on a very close race hinges a lot on understanding how many ballots are left to count. Because what you can see [in] given regions or counties, the past vote, their partisanship, their demographics — something about how we might imagine they have voted. Now, of course, there’s always some difference and you have to allow for that. But you can start to get an estimate of what is the type of vote that’s outstanding. So if it’s very close, and let’s say there’s a major city where Democrats almost always do extremely well that’s remaining, you can say, “Look, these are Democratic areas.” And then ultimately, in a very straightforward way, can this candidate — the trailing candidate — then catch up?

Jonquilyn Hill

Trust in the media and in the democratic process is starting to dwindle. I’m wondering how that has impacted what you do, if at all.

Anthony Salvanto

I know that from our polling [there is a] decline in trusted institutions. What we try to do is be as absolutely transparent as possible. It is one reason that we have our data desk right there in the studio. It’s a reason that I can talk to you, not anybody else. And I’m the one actually making the projections. And I am saying what we know and what we don’t know. And I’m going to tell you what’s been counted and what hasn’t been counted. And my hope is that through that transparency, what people will see is that the US election process is, in fact, terrific.

And I tell you that from my standpoint, as someone who has watched these votes come in for many cycles and many years, it is accurate. I would say to people, don’t just watch and wait to see who wins. Watch to see the process unfold and have patience as it does. Sometimes votes are counted quickly. Sometimes they’re counted slowly. And either way, that’s okay.