Oct 13, 2020 - Economy

Exclusive: The Washington Post won't predict the election outcome

Illustration of a check mark being studied and measured by a variety of hands

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Washington Post has created a vote modeling tool that will help the newsroom determine with reasonable confidence if an election is too close to call and where votes remain to be counted, newsroom leads tell Axios.

Why it matters: The uncertain nature of this years' election has forced news companies to reevaluate the way they will present the election results.

  • "This tool is not designed to call races or predict outcomes. It is designed to give readers a sense of where things are headed, not to predict what is happening," says Jeremy Bowers, the Post's director of engineering.
  • "We are descriptive rather than predictive," says Bowers.

How it works: The Post's model will show where candidates may still have votes waiting to be counted. It learns from early returns in similar places, which means that if there's a spike in turnout or a shift from 2016, it will learn from that in real time.

  • "We wanted to make sure readers know how much uncertainty remains, how up in the air the election is and provide information in real time," says senior politics editor Peter Wallsten.
  • The tool, called "Expected votes tracker," will be used to inform all of The Post's election coverage — from the alerts it sends out to where it deploys its reporters for deeper coverage.
  • Through its in-house AI tool called Heliograf, The Post will also create audio snippets of the analysis.

Details: The Post began testing the tool in 2019 for the Virginia state elections, with the aim of providing context for readers about what is happening behind the scenes.

  • The model helped the company internally contextualize Joe Biden's win in the Texas primary. Despite Bernie Sanders leading in the vote count for the first half of election night, the model alerted The Posts's newsrooms to Biden's edge among uncounted ballots several hours in advance.

Be smart: Practices used in previous elections, like percent of precinct reporting, are becoming less dependable amid an election that will rely much more heavily on mail-in ballots.

The big picture: Most media companies Axios has spoken with are focusing on explaining what's happening in real-time instead of trying to predict outcomes.

  • NBC News will project an individual race when the team is at least 99.5% confident a candidate has won, a spokesperson says. Statistical models will be used to determine a winner based on combination of how much vote is in and margin of percentage between candidates.
  • The New York Times' presentation of results on its website and apps will highlight states where a significant amount of the vote has not yet been counted to convey to readers the degree of uncertainty of a race. "Given the changes in the ways voters cast their ballots votes this year, we anticipate that it may not be possible to declare a winner in a number of key states on election night," they say.
  • CBS News' Decision Desk will make projections throughout the night. In order to make sure the results are as accurate as possible, the network will use its new CBS News Election Night Tracker, which combines exit poll data and vote tallies with CBS News’ proprietary polling in all 50 states. The goal is to offer viewers real-time data at how a state is trending.
  • Univision is partnering with ProPublica’s Electionland to monitor and report on any issues voters might have at the polls. Its graphics team will publish the results in real time and will create a widget for other Spanish-language news organizations in the U.S. and Latin America can embed in their sites with the results.

What's next: "There is a very real possibility that this election could become a new part of American reality and signal a new era of voting with more mail-in ballots and early votes," says Wallsten. "That is why we believed this election cycle required us to really think critically about how we present the results of the vote."

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