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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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

15 thoughts on “Election method

  1. jimmyjohn

    Face it, Ellen. You will try anything.

    When it’s all said and done what did it get us for putting dozens and dozens of folks at the polling places?

    We weren’t second because of that? NBC’s only hit show which was our lead in was the reason we came in 2 – barely.

    Reply
  2. LBJ

    Back in the 80’s Belcher at WAGA put someone in the county election offices for congressional races, but I don’t remember anyone doing it by precinct. I did this service when I was a student. For free. I was ahead of my time in providing free media labor…

    Reply
  3. arky

    I didn’t realize this was considered such a revolutionary idea. In the small town where I grew up, the local radio station did this for every local election. Obviously not as many precincts there as in Atlanta, but it still took every DJ, salesman, engineer, middle manager, driving-age family member, and Kiwanis Club acquaintance they could scrape together to get it done.

    Reply
  4. cityjock

    hooray! wxia has volunteer news gatherers now!

    would you please get in your car and burn your own gas and give us your time so we can cheat you out of compensation for a slightly cool experiment?

    yay!

    we’re innovators!

    yay!

    they could have just saved all their furlough time for the runoff!

    yay!

    Reply
  5. Josh R.

    Well, cityjock, I was going to say something like that, only more politely, but you beat me to it.

    I wonder if there was any penalty for not participating. I imagine all newsroom employees were required to do it, but across the rest of the building (sales, accounting, etc) I’m actually rather curious.

    I’m sure food was provided back at the station for anyone who was in the vicinity. They’ve always been good about feeding people who have to work through big news events.

    The real issue is — and I know this from personal experience — that many people who work at WXIA live well outside the city of Atlanta. I live 15 miles away; I know some folks in sales who live as many as 20; and one photographer (at least) lives more than three counties away from Fulton. If you have kids you have to pick up from school, were you required to come back into the city to get election results? What if you were sick the day the precinct selections happened and you had to drive from (for example) Cumming to East Point just to get the results, then back home?

    In the current environment, everything old is new again, and in a hotly-contested race like the current one, I can see why WXIA did this — and I approve in principle — but from a personal standpoint, I know if I was an accountant or sales assistant I certainly would’ve been grumpy about having to participate.

    Reply
  6. Snozz

    Welcome to small-market Alabama t.v. news 101 ca. 1985 – every election, this is how the votes got reported. Partnerships among the news rooms in town – radio, t.v. and daily print – helped, but for all the staff election nights pretty much defined “pizza in the news room/drinks in the break room/work in the studio”.

    @Josh R.: No one then minded pitching in; and yes, the entire staff was asked to. We had volunteers pitching in from League of Women Voters as well as some Boy & Girl Scouts, but really for most it just meant stopping off at a polling location or two on the way home – usually the one closest to your home – filling in the blanks on a pre-printed ballot sheet with the numbers and calling them in to the newsroom when you got home (pre-cell phones, remember ).

    The counts seemed more accurate through the sepia haze of memory, but more importantly (to me) everyone was spared hours of an anchor babbling about so-and-so’s lead ( “with 3 percent of the precincts reporting” )

    Reply
  7. GLCer

    Let me think about this. I can spend my night at a polling place or the station can use the official returns.

    Now we understand why wxia is sinking like the titanic. They’re to busy wasting their folks – let them gather news.

    Reply
  8. scott hedeen

    I was a major believer in “getting the job done”… sometimes it took being inventive… sometimes it was just letting it all come to you. Praises to WXIA for doing what they did… however…only the viewers can make the real decisions in the news “world”. Ratings. who did what and how is only a sidebar.

    Reply
  9. daryll

    What’s wrong with volunteering to help the news department on election night or otherwise? I think the entire station realizes their fate and fortune can be directly linked to the success of the news department. Times are tough and everyone is in survival mode in our industry. What’s one evening at a polling place phoning in results?

    Reply
  10. GLCer

    Yeah. That makes sense when you can also get the results from the county or AP. If you’re going to ask people to work extra hours on extra projects how about one that makes sense?

    Reply
    1. Snozz

      @GLCer:
      >>Let me think about this. I can spend my night at a polling place or the station can use the official returns… Now we understand why wxia is sinking like the titanic. <>They’re to busy wasting their folks – let them gather news. <>If you’re going to ask people to work extra hours on extra projects how about one that makes sense?<<

      Being first doesn't make sense? Having more accurate, detailed information doesn't make sense?

      And standing around the next day asking print reporters "Hard Questions ™" like "How'd they do that?" *does* make sense?

      Reply
  11. radiowxman

    Didn’t realize this was new. Like the posters said earlier, we did it back when I worked in Fun-roe, Louisiana with KNOE.

    Considering that in 1996, the station was using studio cameras from the 70s, ; there was still a room to develop film; and their radio station had knobs on its mixers (instead of sliders), I doubt they could have come up with anything innovative.

    Reply

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