There are actually 51 separate elections, one for each state plus Washington, DC, each with different rules. And there is no national entity that tells the world who won. How is it possible to quickly and accurately decide who will occupy the White House for the next four years?
That has been the task of the press since 1848, when The Associated Press declared Zachary Taylor the winner.
The president is elected by the Electoral College based on the results of the popular vote. It is a process that takes weeks. To fill the strange void created by a federalist system – worsened in the 1800s – that includes slow voting processing and the subsequent announcement of the winner, news organizations emerged as an important component of the electoral process: Collecting the results of each status – supplied by the electoral authorities -, making the final count and announcing the winner.RELATED
Many people are surprised by this process, including President Donald Trump. After the Associated Press and major television networks declared Joe Biden the winner, Trump wondered in a tweet how long has the media “said who will be the next president?”
Look at the process to determine the winner:
A fragmented process
Announcing the results on the day of the vote is relatively new, as is voting in a single day.
The fathers of the nation created the Electoral College because they thought that giving that power to each state was the only way for them to ratify the Constitution, according to Alex Keyssar, an expert on voting rights at Harvard University. Since the civil war of 1861-65, he notes, politicians in rural areas, especially those in the south, have objected to the idea of letting the national government handle elections.
Elections initially lasted several days and not all states voted on the same dates. The arrival of the telegraph – and the fear that the results of one state could affect those of another – led to a decision that all states would vote on the same day, according to David Greenberg, professor of history and journalism at the University from Rutgers.
After the vote, each state elects the delegates to send to the Electoral College. The amount depends on the population of the state and how many representatives and senators it has in Congress. Those delegates commit to vote for the candidate who received the most votes in their state. Voting begins on December 14, more than a month after the elections.
The president of the Senate and the archivist must receive the results of the electoral vote no later than the fourth Wednesday in December. This year, on December 23rd. The results are sent to the new Congress, which is due to meet in a joint session on January 6 to formally announce the outcome of the vote.
The role of the press
The media became involved in the process because of their instinctive desire to break the news of the winner as quickly as possible and because people don’t want to wait until mid-December.
In a decentralized system of government, only the news media were willing to bear the cost of tabulating votes, according to Rick Edmonds, an analyst at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The Federal Electoral Commission regulates some aspects of the elections, but does not tabulate the votes. This created a void as no one did the final count.
The AP began counting votes and analyzing trends before the civil war. The television networks began to do so in the 1960 contest between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, announcing the winners from each state.
This year’s count was complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Many people voted early by mail, delaying the count in some states. The contest, on the other hand, was very close, which contributed to the delay in announcing the winner. The AP and major networks announced the winner on Saturday, four days after the vote.
How is the count handled?
The AP has people in all states who combine the results of the electoral authorities and official portals.
News organizations around the world use the AP account. AP analysts and editors study voting and demographic information, electoral history, and early voting statistics before declaring the winner.
The AP declared Joe Biden the winner on Saturday morning, after determining that he had triumphed in Pennsylvania, allowing him to exceed the necessary 270 electoral votes. The television networks followed the same process, using the AP account or some other.
“The advantage of having a free press that does this is that the free press is free and independent, at least in theory,” Keyssar said. “But it is not an official count and nobody is obliged to abide by its conclusions. This generates the current confusion ”.
However, no one takes on the task of making an official national count.
What doesn’t work
Errors and failures occur.
In 1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a big front-page headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman” after the first numbers gave the lead to favorite Thomas Dewey. In the end, however, Harry S. Truman was re-elected against the odds.
In 2000, the major networks and the AP won Al Gore in Florida and later had to recant. They declared that George W. Bush had triumphed in Florida and had to back down as well. The AP refrained from calling Bush the winner because the vote was very close. More than a month later, the Supreme Court ruled that a recount be suspended, in a vote of 5-4, and Bush was declared the winner by a slim margin.
The Trump campaign says it will challenge Biden’s triumph in court, without offering evidence of fraud.
The AP considers the possibility of such a step before making announcements, according to its editorial director Sally Buzbee.
Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani said the media has no official role in determining the winner.
That’s true. But analyst Edmonds believes the practice will continue because it is deeply ingrained. He claims that the methods can be improved, but that “I don’t see any instance where the system has not worked.”