The 2020 presidential race, occurring during a once-in-a-century pandemic, is one of the most unique in U.S. history.
Election Day will be very different this year and media organizations will need to be extremely careful in how they report results — not only for the presidential contest, but also for thousands of other races across the country.
The number of people who have already voted is unprecedented. But just because tens of millions have voted early, that doesn’t mean results will be known on Election Night.
In fact, just the opposite — different counting requirements in various states mean the winners of many races may not be known for days and possibly weeks.
Ahead of Election Day, we thought it might be helpful for our listeners and readers to know how WTOP plans to cover the election as well as how we plan to announce results of both local and national races.
How will WTOP report presidential election results?
Trusted news organizations carry out extensive planning for elections and have specific guidelines for reporting results.
WTOP staff members have been preparing for Election Day for months. But we are also getting ready for an Election Night that may not lead to a victory declaration for either President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden.
WTOP is a member of The Associated Press, which is a nonprofit news cooperative, and also an affiliate of CBS News Radio.
While we monitor all major media organizations, we will not likely send out an alert to your smartphone or announce the presidential race result on the air until The Associated Press or CBS announces a projected winner. We will attribute that declaration to one or both news organizations.
WTOP will not report a result if we are not confident in the result.
The decision on when WTOP reports the result will come after an extensive discussion involving our news managers, who have decades of experience covering elections.
Also, it’s important to note that WTOP — as we do in every election — will be calling not just the president’s race but other races as “projected winners,” since complete voting figures won’t be tallied until much later (which is also commonplace).
What if no winner is declared on Election Night?
This, as previously noted, is very possible.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was not declared by the major television networks and The Associated Press until 2:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday.
In the most extreme case, in the year 2000, George W. Bush was not declared the winner over Al Gore until the Supreme Court announced its 5-4 decision on Dec. 12, following a contentious recount in Florida.
If no winner is projected on Nov. 3 or the early hours of Nov. 4, WTOP will focus on the reasons the race result is still not clear, which may be because of lagging or close results in several key battleground states.
Among the key states to watch will be Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona.
Weren’t the presidential polls wrong in 2016?
The polling in several states was not as extensive as it could have been and didn’t pick up on the surge of voters for Donald Trump in closely contested states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Overall, the national polls were fairly accurate, while many state polls were not.
A report that looked at polls found that the polling error in states was close to 5 percentage points in 2016.
The best polls seek a plus or minus margin closer to 3 percentage points.
The experience of 2016 has caused many to be skeptical of polls, which can only go so far in predicting likely outcomes.
Pollsters have tried to adjust in the latest election, carrying out more surveys and breaking down more categories.
For example, polls this year have done more weighting of voters by their educational background, which wasn’t done as much in 2016.
College graduates tend to be more likely to answer surveys, which can skew results. Surveys have generally shown stronger support for Trump among non-college graduates than for Joe Biden.
What about declaring which party controls the U.S. Senate?
It’s very likely the final balance of power in the U.S. Senate won’t be clear on Election Night.
Republicans hold a 53-47 edge over Democrats, and many of the Senate races are extremely close. Democrats need a net gain of four seats to regain control if President Trump is reelected; they would need a net gain of three seats if Joe Biden is elected.
Some of the races may be called that evening, while others remain too close to call.
WTOP will continually update the races and indicate what key races still need to be determined as the issue of which party controls the Senate hangs in the balance.
Don’t read too much into early results
Longtime political watchers know that it’s not a good idea to get too excited — or upset — by early election figures.
WTOP, whenever possible, always tries to let you know the percentage of precincts reported in a given race. A big percentage lead doesn’t mean anything in a state if major precincts haven’t yet reported results.
Throughout the evening, our reporters and anchors try to provide perspective on the votes that have been counted. This will be even more important in states where the counting of mail-in and absentee ballots has already begun — or in states where the counting of those ballots doesn’t begin until the polls close.
On election night, news consumers will have access to up-to-the-minute race results on WTOP.com. These results are provided by The Associated Press and will include percent of precincts reporting. These same results from The AP are what WTOP will use in our on-air reporting. Live results will be available for the presidential race in all 50 states as well as for Senate and House races in Maryland, Virginia and D.C.
Also, due to the pandemic, there may be more people still waiting in line at in-person polling places across the country. All of these factors should lead to careful caveats as the numbers come in.
State and local election results
WTOP is a source of local, national and international news. And providing news that affects you and your community is critical to our mission. So, as always, WTOP will be providing extensive coverage of state and local races and ballot initiatives, bringing you the results as soon as we have them on-air and on WTOP.com.
In addition to the information from The Associated Press, WTOP’s team of reporters in the newsroom election night will also be looking directly at returns being offered by the various Boards of Election in Maryland, Virginia and D.C.
WTOP has created extensive voter guides that cover key races and issues in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. All can be found on our Election News Central page.
We also have a weekly election newsletter, “From WTOP’s Election Desk,” that you can sign up for. In it, you’ll get analysis from WTOP’s team of election reporters. You can also sign up for our breaking news emails right through our homepage or for breaking news alerts through our app (available on Apple and Android devices).
Also, it’s important to note that WTOP will be following up on any problems that come up on Election Day, such as issues with voting machines or extraordinary waiting periods for people voting in person.
There are also likely to be legal challenges and calls for recounts, given how different this election is, taking place in the midst of the pandemic.
What else can you expect from WTOP’s Election coverage?
No matter where you are on Election Day, night and in the days after, the team at WTOP will be providing you with the latest information as we receive it with limited commercial interruptions.
Twelve of our reporters will be deployed across the region throughout the day, including at polling places, beginning at 4 a.m. on Election Day. As we learn of any potential issues at the polls, we’ll be bringing that information to you live on the air, on WTOP.com and on our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). WTOP will also be in contact with the various local Boards of Election throughout the day.
We’ll also be covering the large gatherings expected in downtown D.C. Tuesday afternoon and evening. You’ll hear from WTOP reporters Alejandro Alvarez and Kyle Cooper on air throughout the day. You can also follow Alejandro on Twitter.
On election night, our coverage will be anchored by veteran WTOP evening anchor Dimitri Sotis and Michelle Basch, with analysis from WTOP Capitol Hill Correspondent Mitchell Miller, Virginia Politics Reporter Nick Iannelli and Maryland Politics Reporter Kate Ryan, among others.
WTOP’s online coverage of the local and national races, results and analysis will be led by reporters Rick Massimo, Jack Moore, Will Vitka and Abigail Constantino. Our team of 16 digital reporters, editors and social media specialists will be bringing you the latest online through articles, blogs, photo galleries and livestreams.
In addition to our coverage throughout the region, WTOP listeners and readers will also have a chance to see what’s going on behind-the-scenes in the WTOP newsroom. A livestream of the WTOP studio will be available on WTOP.com from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. WTOP’s Social Media Strategist Brett Snyder will also be providing video updates from the WTOP newsroom throughout the night, with exclusive interviews from our reporters covering the election.
WTOP’s coverage will continue Wednesday morning, where anchors Bruce Alan and Joan Jones will bring you the latest as we learn it from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. Mark Lewis and Debra Feinstein then anchor from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. And Shawn Anderson and Hillary Howard will bring you the latest from 2 p.m. – 7 p.m.
This year, WTOP will feature student voices from around the region as student journalists from Howard University, American University, George Washington University and University of Maryland contribute to our coverage.
As always, you can listen live to WTOP’s election coverage on 103.5FM, 107.7FM and 103.9FM, on the WTOP App, on Alexa and on WTOP.com. On Alexa, just say, “Alexa, open WTOP.” On Google Home say, “Hey Google. Play WTOP.”
WTOP is committed to bringing you the latest information as we confirm it on air, on WTOP.com and across our social media channels. If you have any questions about WTOP’s coverage or have a news tip to report, you can do so by emailing us here. Emails sent via this form are immediately forwarded to all WTOP newsroom managers. You can also call the WTOP newsroom at (202) 895-5060.