By PHILIP BUMP The Washington Post
In the southeastern corner of Indiana, tucked against the Ohio River, is Ohio County. About 6,000 people live there, making it the smallest county in the state. And this evening, as votes are tallied, there will be a stringer from the Associated Press there waiting to relay totals back to the wire service — and then on to the rest of us.
As election results came in last Tuesday, fans of Bernie Sanders noticed that his totals in Sussex County, Del., spiked briefly before reverting back to a lower number. The spike was spotted a
t the websites of The Post and the Guardian by people looking for evidence voter fraud, and so, despite the data being wrong for only two minutes, the error was quickly passed around as evidence of the fix being in for Hillary Clinton. (It wasn’t. She won Delaware by 20 points, picking up slightly more of its relatively few delegates.)
It made us wonder, though, how the Associated Press — which provides the data for The Post’s election night graphics — got numbers from Sussex County back to our screens. The answer, as you might have guessed, is by sending a lot of people out to a lot of counties to relay vote totals as they become available.
The AP has a FAQ on the topic, in fact, but it’s oriented around a presidential general election. Curious how it worked for primaries, we reached out by email to Don Rehill, the AP’s director of election tabulations and research.
“We will have a stringer at every county tonight,” Rehill explained, “reporting cumulative vote results to one of our vote entry centers.” For larger counties, like Marion County (home to Indianapolis), the AP will also pipe in automatic vote count feeds. In smaller counties and for statewide totals, staff will also manually pull numbers from county websites.
Those vote counts are sent to vote entry centers by phone, fax or email before being aggregated into overall numbers. (Why “centers,” plural? In case one loses power or otherwise goes offline.) For the most part, the data is transmitted by phone for the simple reason that it requires that another person be involved in gathering — and assessing — the data. “Stringers do generally call by phone into our vote center,” Rehill wrote, “and a trained vote entry operator, supervised by a floor/state supervisor, walks them through the vote entry dialogue. We have experimented with other mechanisms but find that, especially when a stringer is reporting a lot of races/candidates, mobile apps or interactive voice response systems are somewhat limited and error rates increase.”
The AP has other ways of weeding out errors, too. Rehill explained some of the checks that are in place:
- The data-gathering system double-checks vote totals against the number of registered voters in an area.
- If a vote total declines between reports, the system will require that a supervisor approve the change — suggesting a correction to an earlier report.
- A similar alert pops up if there’s a big shift in the relative percentages between candidates or if those results are vastly different from past results in the area.
Part of the AP’s preparations mandates knowing the terrain in advance, in part because it also makes election outcome calls that other places rely on. Tonight, they’ll be looking at the big counties, of course, Rehill said, as well as counties with large universities or big manufacturing bases, like Elkhart. Counties that shifted their presidential general election vote between 2008 and 2012, he said, might offer some insight into how independents are voting in the state’s open primary.
Sure, mistakes still happen. But there’s another reason the AP sends people out to all of these locations: To have reporters on the scene to ask questions about how voting is going and to question any oddities. In other words, the Associated Press runs a voter-fraud early warning system.
If someone crosses the river and shows up in Ohio County with 14,000 extra votes for John Kasich, the AP reporter on the scene will be one of the first to know about it.
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