Precinct-level voting projections

By comparing scattered early results from a current election to results from the same precincts in the last election, it’s pretty easy to guess who won. But no one seems to do that sort of mapping anymore, at least not in public.

Francine Busby, running to replace Duke Cunningham (in the House of Representatives, of course, not in prison) came up short of the 50% of the vote she would have needed to clinch the seat on the first round. She will now face off against ex-Congressman Brian Bilbray in June. Busby came in just shy of 44%, which is by no means a terrible performance in a heavily Republican district where the multiple Republican candidates spent a total of $5 million (to Busby’s $1 million). It’s anybody’s guess how June will come out; that’s primary day, and the Democrats have a Gubernatorial primary while the Republicans don’t, and Bilbray is less than popular with social conservatives and not personally rich, so he may wind up short of money. On the other hand, it is a Republican district. Turnout was light, which makes me doubt the existence of a large body of Democratic and Independent voters who are as mad as I am about Republican corruption.

That said, this is as good a time as any to complain about one of my pet peeves. Last night when I went to bed, Busby was running at about 42%, with 20% of the precincts in. But of course that didn’t tell you much of anything about how the race was going to come out unless you knew WHICH precincts were in.

With a map of the precincts showing which were in, an a map of the party split in the vote last time, it would have been easy to project a final outcome. When I was a kid doing politics in Baltimore, that sort of thing went on at headquarters election night, and TV commentators did it all the time. And that was by hand and eyeball. With computers, it should be completely trivial.

So why is it no longer done? Presumably, the people behind the scenes doing state-level projects are using some such algorithm, but it’s been more than a decade since I’ve heard an explicit reference by someone on camera: “Smith, the Republican, is ahead in the raw vote, but all the suburbs are already counted and the urban precincts are still out, so we’re projecting Jones with 53% of the vote. Has TV gone so completely to pretty faces that there’s no one left who knows politics at the precinct level? Or are they just scared of making a mistake?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “Precinct-level voting projections”

  1. That happens occasionally, but only in blowout races- on election night they'll project a winner while the vote totals say 50-50 or even favor the loser. They won't get into precinct level patterns, but they'll say "that's just 1% reporting, the larger districts haven't come in yet."

  2. If they give accurate predictions, they won't have many suprise upsets to report, and they like reporting suprise upsets. Bad reporting is an effective way to build false suspense.

  3. I think they're so steeped in commercial values, that they want to keep the "horse race" dynamic going, and thus keep viewers. If they accurately projected the outcome, people would turn off the TV and go to bed.

  4. Aren't they refraining from making predictions, because of the "California effect"?
    That is, if they make a prediction before the last polls close, the people voting late in those precincts might alter their voting behavior?

  5. Wow, I thought it was illegal to project the probable results based on knowledge of precinct tendencies. It would certainly lead to screams and howls that people were disenfranchised or discouraged from voting because the result was a foregone conclusion. And wouldn't those screams and howls be right?
    I remember one of the non-true Republican assertions about the 2000 election was that western Florida voters in the Republican panhandle area decided not to vote because the results were called for Florida before their polls (in the central time zone) had closed.

  6. Wouldn't that require paying the cost of another intern or researcher for the night (and possibly a few days or weeks before the election) to look up the appropriate information? You're talking hundreds of dollars for something that might not even increase ratings. (For that matter, you might decrease ratings, because large swings back and forth give more of a false impression of a horse race, which makes for more drama.)
    Oh, you though local news reports had something to to with news? Pardon the ring.

  7. I noticed the change in reporting, which occurred at the national level in Presidential races, as well as local races, as exit polling came to dominate election projections. Prior to this, the political reporters trying to make sense of results relied on their sense of the actual vote versus the expected vote from the reporting precincts.
    I also vaguely recall that some of the early models for projecting election results were based on collecting the vote for specific precincts and using these in models for the overall vote based on prior electoral history. This also seems to have been supplanted by exit polling. So, no exit poll, no projection, or at least no discussion by the reporters in real time on the news.

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