This is how the New York Times describes the plan:
The group expects to make some bold predictions to kick off Election Day. At 6 a.m. Eastern time, before the first rays of sunlight kiss the Rockies or a single Election Day vote is cast, it expects to project who is winning the swing state of Colorado based on absentee ballots and an early vote count kept by the Colorado secretary of state.
I think this framing is an oversimplification for a national audience that has the unfortunate effect of making it sound like the Secretary of State’s Office is keeping a vote tally before Election Day that only certain special people get to see. They aren’t.
But Slate and Votecastr, a new venture formed by veteran elections forecasters (or forecastrs?), will be using the techniques employed by the campaigns themselves to keep track of who has and hasn’t voted and making projections based on that information, projections that they think will prove accurate through the day and into Election Night.
They’ll be publishing their findings in real time on Slate, breaking with a decades-long media tradition that avoids these kinds of detailed projections.
Matt Crane has “grave concerns” about this plan. He’s the clerk and recorder in Arapahoe County, one of the Colorado counties that will help decide this election. It’s the same concern that elections officials have had for decades.
“There is data or evidence that announcing the results early, whether it was in 1980 in California or in 2000 with the Florida panhandle, those things have really happened,” he said. “And it’s not just a concern for the presidential race. It has impacts up and down the ballot.”
In 1980, television networks called the election for Ronald Reagan before polls had closed on the West Coast, and there were reports of voters leaving lines outside polling stations in California. In 2000, results were announced in Florida even though people were still voting in the panhandle, which is in a different time zone. That election, of course, got kicked to the Supreme Court, and you can make a decent case that the early perception that George W. Bush had won there influenced the final outcome.
In 1980, the presidents of ABC, CBS and NBC were hauled before Congress for hearings even though turnout in California remained at normal levels. A taboo around discussing election results while the election is in progress has prevailed ever since.
“Politicians from Western states have been very critical of any attempt to project election outcomes and report election outcomes before voters in their states have had a chance to cast their votes,” Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison Research, which conducts exit polling for leading news organizations on election nights, told the New York Times.
Writing in Slate, Sasha Issenberg, editorial director and chief strategist for Votecastr, explained how they’ll make these projections and why they matter.
As political analytics have grown more sophisticated in the years since, the speed and quality of Election Day projections have only increased. In states with extensive early voting programs, it is now possible to know which citizens have returned ballots — local authorities typically release a list of voter names each day during an early voting period — and match those to statistical models predicting how each individual will vote.
Colorado, with its all-mail elections, has just such an extensive early voting program. In Denver in 2012, some 102,000 votes were cast before Election Day and just 11,000 were cast on the day itself.
Those ballots are scanned as they come in — this is calling “counting” in the parlance of elections workers — but they aren’t “tabulated” until the polls close on Election Day. Tabulating is when we find out how many votes each candidate got. That’s per state law.
So there is no actual tally of votes before Election Day, but there is a list of whose ballots have been received. That information is generated by the various county clerks every day and multiple times on Election Day. Political parties and campaigns collect that information to target their get-out-the-vote efforts in the final weeks, and it is available to anyone else who wants it.
That voter information also tells anyone who analyzes it how many Democrats, Republicans and independents have returned ballots so far and from which counties, cities and precincts. Not every Democrat will vote for Hillary Clinton and not every Republican will vote for Donald Trump; Colorado’s independents represent their own wild card, especially this year with Libertarian Gary Johnson making a strong showing. That said, the people who do this for a living can use large sample-size surveys to make pretty accurate guesses about the breakdown. This year, we in the general public, for better or worse, will be privy to those best guesses.
Issenberg said the projections, like all polling, will be accurate to the extent the surveyed group matches who actually votes. Because the results will be updated constantly with information about who has voted, he expects their projections to be more accurate than other polling or exit interviews.
Crane, the Arapahoe County clerk, said a significant majority of ballots are cast before Election Day, but enough ballots come in on the day itself to swing an election, especially a close one.
Issenberg argues that voters deserve to have this information, in part because it influences how winners govern and how losers attempt to reorganize for the next contest. A candidate who prevails because of large turnout by the base will be accountable to a different constituency than one who wins by garnering the support of large numbers of independents and moderates of the other party.
Despite Crane’s cautions, political junkies, myself included, likely will keep Slate in an open tab on Election Day and hit refresh early and often.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote.
“We don’t know how accurate their methodology is,” Crane said. “You should always go vote and make sure your voice is heard, and you can impact the election that way. Relying on other people or modeling can be dangerous.”
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