Daily Archives: December 7, 2009

Election method

Election night is always a little misleading.  During the evening, the public watches and listens to broadcast media to see who is “leading” in the vote.  If a candidate is “leading,” it implies that there is an ongoing competition.  But there isn’t.

Once the polls close, no candidate is “leading.”  One of them has already won.  But the vote-count is ongoing, with results trickling out to the public through the news media.  That trickle of information yields a deceptive horse-race quality that adds drama to the evening, and keeps political geeks (as well as your garden-variety well-informed citizens) glued to the media on election night.

On November 1, WXIA delivered partial election results more quickly than the rest of the news media.  It showed the horse-race quality of the vote count more quickly.  WXIA also geographically showed which precincts were voting for Mary Norwood or Kasim Reed.   This was unique.  Nobody else did it.

This was the result of a brainstorm from the bosslady.  She figured out that the law requires precincts to post the results of the race after the polls close.  The post is supposed to be visible to the public, typically affixed to a door.  She reckoned that WXIA could find a way to send staff and / or volunteers to nearly all of the 160 or so of Atlanta’s election day / runoff precincts.

There were skeptics.  I was among those who feared that pollworkers would simply ignore the obscure law requiring the posting of results.  With fewer than a half-dozen exceptions, it turned out I was quite wrong.

It worked quite well.  It was remarkable, actually.  As the Associated Press (and as a result, every other news media in town) reported next-to-zero election returns, WXIA was gathering results from volunteers and and tabulating the vote total.

This wasn’t exit-polling.  These weren’t estimates.  They were official results, gathered at the precinct level.

It also resulted in some confusion for those who watched WXIA’s vote totals alongside those of other media.  Rodney Ho wrote about it in the AJC Wednesday.

Because our volunteers mostly fanned out from WXIA’s Midtown studios, they gathered numbers earliest from Northside precincts that favored Norwood.  Our board showed Norwood with an early lead that shrank as the evening wore on and the numbers came in.

But unlike most local election night totals — which don’t give the geographic breakdown of the incoming numbers — WXIA was able to fully disclose which precincts it had counted.  The station used a color-coded map that showed which precincts had been counted, and which ones hadn’t.  This gave viewers more information to make informed judgments about what the early numbers meant.

In his post, Rodney Ho quoted WGCL news director Steve Schwaid, who implied that WXIA’s numbers somehow weren’t “official.”  Quoth Schwaid:  “It would never cross our minds not to use the official counting source for information.”

WGCL was among the stations that had next-to-zero election totals for the first 90 minutes after the polls closed.  Schwaid apparently misunderstood;  the numbers WXIA used were official.   The next day, WXIA updated its map with numbers provided by the Board of Elections website.  Except for absentee ballots, they were the same.

Funny thing is, it’s unlikely WXIA (or anybody else in Atlanta) will be able to repeat this method anytime soon.  There are too many precincts in Congressional and state elections to staff them all.  A city election is just right for this kind of exercise.

There’s always 2013.

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