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Counting 2020 election results not as simple as 1-2-3

In a development that could have implications for both the news business and democracy, at least three competing entities are lining up to tabulate results for the 2020 presidential election.

At least three different companies will be competing in 2020 to compile election results.

The one thing everyone wants to know on election night, maybe the only thing, is who won and who lost.

That’s why it’s always surprised me that in Illinois and many other states there is no official government tabulation of statewide election results — until weeks later.

The election night returns you’ve long seen reported in Illinois for state and national races don’t come from the State Board of Elections, but instead from the Associated Press.

It’s the AP that contacts all 108 election jurisdictions in the state — that’s 102 counties and six municipal election boards — to compile the unofficial vote tally on which news organizations, and most candidates, have long relied to declare winners and losers.

That’s changing.

In a development that could have implications for both the news business and democracy, at least three competing entities are lining up to tabulate results for the 2020 presidential election — each of them promising the most accurate data and fastest projections.

One of those companies reached out to me by email last week with a business pitch offering “Turnkey election results … way before the AP.”

As I explained to the folks at Decision Desk HQ, I’m not the guy who makes spending decisions like that for the Chicago Sun-Times, but I have a definite interest in comparing notes with anyone involved in the sausage-making process of sorting through election results.

There aren’t that many people outside politics who even understand how the numbers are tabulated in Illinois, let alone that you can get one-stop shopping for vote totals at the Georgia Secretary of State but have to collect the data individually from several hundred townships in Maine.

As it turns out, Decision Desk HQ president and founder Drew McCoy even knew that his organization stations a reporter in person on election night at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners because that allows it to receive up-to-the-minute results slightly faster than if it waited for the board to upload the data to its public website.

I didn’t realize that was possible and tried to argue the point, but then checked with Chicago election board spokesman Jim Allen, who confirmed McCoy was correct and that anyone at board headquarters has an advantage in getting results faster — anywhere from five to eight minutes, by his estimate.

That may not seem like much, but in the current speed competitive media landscape, that could be the difference of being the first outlet to report a winner online or on the air.

Decision Desk HQ has been around since 2012, having identified a need for smaller media outlets to have their own, less expensive, source for election data.

Edison Research joined the competition in 2018 after many years of conducting exit polling for the National Election Pool, which feeds most of the major television networks. Now Edison Research does both.

FOX News stuck with the AP, which remains the main election result source for most news organizations.

Election night reporting can be a scary job. After all, nobody in Chicago journalism wants to be responsible for replicating the Tribune’s famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline.

We always breathe a sigh of relief around here when a candidate concedes, because it clarifies the result without one of us having to make our own seat-of-the-pants projection.

Although there’s nothing new about media organizations competing to project winners the fastest, sometimes to the chagrin of voters, those projections were usually based on different analysts crunching the same data.

Now we have the possibility of different organizations coming up with different numbers as their starting point, which could make for interesting complications in a close election.

Given the level of distrust in some corners with the news media, the competition is a plus, McCoy argued.

“You need a second set of eyes on this,” he said, noting that the competing services can help catch mistakes or just confirm the accuracy of the vote totals.

All of this is further complicated by new state election laws such as in Illinois that encourage voting by mail, which can extend the counting long past Election Day. Local election jurisdictions in Illinois have 31 days to report official results to the state board.

“I always say we start at the same number [zero], and we end at the same number [the final official result],” McCoy said.

It’s “what happens in the middle” that will bear watching in 2020.