Letter from the Editor: We call election winners based on deep local knowledge, nonpartisan math

When it comes to elections, journalists want to bring fast and accurate results to the voters who invested their time and energy in participating in democracy. That can be a delicate balancing act.

In November 1980, the incumbent president Jimmy Carter conceded to challenger Ronald Reagan just after 6 p.m. Pacific time, two hours before polls closed in Oregon and other western states.

“A cliffhanger it was not. Reagan’s margin rivaled history’s great landslides,”The Associated Press reported. Some West Coast voters, however, were livid the election was declared over before they had a chance to cast a ballot.

In 2000, famously, networks called the state of Florida for Democrat Al Gore, then had to retract that call.

Some media outlets then called the state for Republican George W. Bush, leading Gore to call and congratulate Bush on winning the presidency. Then, in the early morning hours, networks had to walk back that call, sending the race into prolonged uncertainty.

Gore called Bush back to retract his concession as The Associated Press sent up flares about results in Florida. The back and forth left viewers confused and jaded, and the experts embarrassed.

‘’Oh, waiter,’’ CNN analyst Jeff Greenfield said on air, ‘’One order of crow.’’

That later became the title of his book about the 2000 election.

The Oregonian had a bit of internal drama that night as well, even with the benefit of West Coast deadlines. After Gore conceded, we sent the front page to press, with a big, bold headline proclaiming, “Bush wins.”

As uncertainty grew, though, we remade the front page numerous times, pulling back the trucks with the premature headline. The final headline was accurate: “Too close to call.”

In 2020, Chris Stirewalt famously lost his job at Fox News after the network’s Decision Desk projected – correctly – that Joe Biden would win Arizona over Donald Trump. That sent off anger and angst in the Trump camp and within the walls of the Trump-friendly network.The day after the election this month, some readers were unhappy that The Oregonian/OregonLive, based on politics editor Betsy Hammond’s astute analysis, called the Oregon governor’s race for Tina Kotek over Christine Drazan at 11 a.m. the day after the election, when hundreds of thousands of ballots had yet to be tallied.

“You should issue an apology to Oregon voters for disenfranchising the people whose votes have not yet been counted,” one woman wrote. “You are interfering with an election by calling it early and not admitting to the public every vote has not been counted.”

We also called the race in the 5th Congressional District when the result was clear.

“The people decide an election, not the newspaper,” one reader said in response. “Fine to say that it is leaning in that direction, and fine to talk about the candidates, but to state that there is a winner — prematurely — bad journalism! Very disturbing.”

At the time of our call in the governor’s race, thousands of ballots were still being counted. Smaller numbers of valid ballots that were postmarked on time had not yet arrived at elections offices.

So how can The Oregonian/OregonLive and other media organizations confidently call winners at that point?

The first, and easiest, are uncontested races. Many races in any Oregon election have only one candidate on the ballot. Those are called seconds after 8 p.m. Election Night.

Second, some races have a clear imbalance, featuring one candidate with a strong numerical advantage, the power of the incumbency and/or a history of lopsided wins. For instance, we can declare U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, the winner as soon as we see the first tranche of ballots due to the heavy Democratic tilt in his congressional district and his wide initial (70/30) margin over his lesser-known Republican challenger.

Finally, we call competitive races when the result appears to be a mathematical certainty. When the front-runner has an insurmountable lead, according to our calculations, and there no longer remains a path to victory for the challenger, we call the race. That may be hours after the ballot deadline or days later.

Our newsroom’s deep knowledge of Oregon politics and our established lines of communications with county election offices allow us to accurately call the results of Oregon races well ahead of national news organizations such as The Associated Press and the New York Times.

This year, we declared winners of Oregon’s three tightest races for Congress well before those newsrooms did – largely because we had

detailed information on how few votes had been cast but remained to be counted.

We broke the news that Democrat Val Hoyle had won in the 4th District (made at 9:30 p.m. on election night), that Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer was the victor in the 5th District (11 a.m. Nov. 11) and that Democrat Andrea Salinas triumphed in the 6th (5:45 p.m. Nov. 14).

To be clear, we are not disenfranchising anyone. All valid votes are counted at the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, which then certifies the election.

Some readers questioned why we do not wait until the votes are certified. Certification does not take place until Dec. 15, well past the point at which results are clear. It serves no one to withhold reliable information that long.

Others asked why not wait until all votes are counted. In Oregon, ballots postmarked on Election Day were counted if they arrived as late as seven days afterward. (Most mailed ballots, however, arrive a day or two after Election Day.)

Vote counting, as we saw this year, can take more than a week. We favor sharing important election information with readers when we have confidence in its accuracy, rather than waiting until every single vote is tabulated.

Our decision does not affect the outcome in any way because we don’t call races until after voting has closed. (The Associated Press also does not call races when any part of a voting jurisdiction still has polls open.)

When we make a call, it is based on deep local knowledge, clear-eyed reasoning and Hammond’s strong data analysis. We lay out the basis for our decision in the article, point out where votes remain outstanding and post all relevant data so readers can review it.

For example, in the Nov. 9 article, we noted Kotek was up statewide by 30,000 votes. The article explained, “With Multnomah County voters favoring Kotek over Drazan by a better than 70% to 30% margin, those untallied votes in Oregon’s biggest, bluest county could be expected to add another 30,000 votes to Kotek’s lead … Then, editors look to votes still uncounted in counties that favored Drazan, including the more populous counties such as Clackamas, Marion and Yamhill.

“Those untallied votes, while substantial, would not be sufficient to overcome the substantial numbers favoring Kotek, our analysis showed.”

And, in fact, Kotek ended up 67,000 ahead of Drazan, as of Friday, as projected.

We believe this sort of local expertise and solid, reliable information serves our audience, even if the news is unwelcome in partisan camps. We’re not perfect, but we are transparent about our reasoning.

And math, after all, is nonpartisan.

Parade note: You won’t find Parade in The Sunday Oregonian today. The decision to end its print run is out of our hands. However, if you subscribe directly from us, you can receive Parade in the eNewspaper at no added cost.

Go to enewsPO.oregonlive.com and sign in using your email address and password (if you haven’t yet activated your eNewspaper account, click Activate, then put in an email address and password and click Create Account.).

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