Why media are reporting different vote totals


What history has shown us about contested elections and peaceful transitions of power.


The protracted race for presidency has confused some channel-flippers.

Look at Fox News Thursday, and you’ll see Joe Biden has 264 Electoral College votes of the 270 needed to win, while Donald Trump lags behind with 214. But tune into CNN and you’ll find that Biden has 253, while Trump has 213. 

What’s behind the discrepancy?

Some networks are using different polling data to make conclusions about which states are being won by each candidate.

CBS, CNN, ABC and NBC (along with its cable sibling MSNBC) are members of the National Election Pool, a consortium using data from Edison Research.  

People cast their ballots for the 2020 election at the Sherman Township Center School on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Colo, Iowa.  (Photo: Brian Powers, The Register/ USA TODAY Network)

But the Associated Press, a primary source for PBS, NPR and many major newspapers including USA TODAY, has its own VoteCast system. Fox News has its own voting analysis system, based partly on AP data, that’s used for its own projections.

Both say they’ve adjusted for the much larger number of absentee mail-in votes. Unlike previous exit polls, VoteCast – launched for the 2018 midterm elections – recruits from a random sample of registered voters, using mail, landline and cellphones, and online methods, to conduct “massive” online polls. The National Election Pool surveys voters at polls along with telephone surveys of absentee and mail-in voters. 

Fox projected that Biden would win Arizona’s 11 electoral votes at 11:20 p.m. EST Tuesday, with only 73% of votes counted. That sparked immediate pushback from the Trump campaign and a rare on-air appearance by Arnon Mishkin, who leads Fox’s decision desk, who defended its call.  AP followed Fox’s Arizona call a few hours later, which was reported by USA TODAY.

CNN has tallied one fewer Electoral College vote for Trump than other outlets because it hasn’t called Maine’s 2nd congressional district. (Maine and Nebraska are the only states where electoral votes can be split based on outcomes in separate districts; other states are winner take all.) 

Fox News projected Joe Biden would win Arizona on Tuesday night, but other networks haven’t. The reason? They use different sources for election data. (Photo: Fox News Channel)

Thursday, AP said it will continue monitoring Arizona results, where Biden holds a 68,000-vote lead, but said the majority of the 450,000 votes that remain to be counted are in Democratic-leaning Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and makes up 60% of the state’s population, which informed its projection.

The Arizona count: In latest batch, Trump gets share of votes he would need to reclaim Arizona. But next rounds of ballots present new challenges

But results in Nevada, Alaska, Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, which has 20 electoral votes, have also not been finalized. 


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