November 4, 2008 in City

It’s in voters’ hands now

AP’s Spokane, Cheney centers gather results from across nation
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Christopher Anderson photo

Associated Press Data Center floor supervisor Crystal Larson, with upraised hand, helps train election return workers Saturday in Spokane.
(Full-size photo)

Election assistance

Helpful information for Washington and Idaho residents on where to vote, where to take your absentee ballot, voting times and other election-related topics/B1

While the world awaits the outcome of today’s presidential election, several hundred Spokane-area workers will be busy compiling those results from 31 states.

Spokane will be a major player in telling the world who wins.

The Associated Press international news organization has two sites in Spokane County – one in the Lincoln Building downtown and one at Eastern Washington University – for processing results that will be used throughout the night by virtually every major news organization.

“As for presidential results, there is no other source,” said Dana Bloch, director of AP’s data center in Spokane.

Getting the numbers out may be high-tech, but gathering them is distinctly old school.

The news service hires some 4,000 correspondents to staff locations where votes are tabulated, mostly county courthouses. As local returns come in, the correspondents telephone one of four AP centers around the country, including the two Spokane-area sites.

Here, a crew of mostly young, part-time workers will input the numbers, including about 300 students from EWU, Gonzaga and Whitworth universities, plus another 100 full- and part-time workers.

Nearly a dozen of the most important battleground states will be processed through Spokane, including Virginia, where polls close at 4 p.m. Pacific time. Early results from there could offer a glimpse at how the election is going as people just get off work in the Inland Northwest.

Other battleground states being processed here are Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, New Hampshire, Colorado, Montana, Michigan and Missouri.

In addition to the presidential race, the AP collects results for thousands of “down ballot” contests, such as gubernatorial races, congressional matchups and selected state ballot measures.

To ensure accuracy, the AP runs the numbers against a series of software programs on voter registration and past voting histories.

“There are some fail-safes built into the system that will set off alerts,” Bloch said.

Mistakes typically occur where votes are being tabulated locally. So when AP spots a problem, the on-scene correspondent talks to local elections officials to clear it up, he explained.

In addition, the AP has a team of quality-control analysts in New York to watch the numbers for accuracy.

Another team of reporters and analysts in Washington, D.C., studies the returns against demographic patterns and exit polling. They work with state bureau chiefs to make the early calls on winners.

The Associated Press belongs to the National Election Pool, which obtains exit polling data through two research firms and disseminates it to major news organizations.

The system has worked well in recent elections, Bloch said. “I can’t think of any major errors that AP has made. In fact, we were one of the only major sources of news that did not call the 2000 race for George Bush during that close election that had the contested results in Florida,” he said.

In between major elections, the data center, with its 14 full-time employees, mobilizes smaller crews for collecting results of primary elections, off-year elections and high school sports.

The center in Spokane handled returns for the Super Tuesday primary last Feb. 5.

The decision to locate the AP Data Center in Spokane and set up a Western Election Center at EWU came after the AP started encountering office space problems in Los Angeles and elsewhere during the 2000 primary season.

Ann Joyce, the former data center director in Spokane, said she was looking for a place to set up a processing center when the idea of using EWU and its students came up. It turned out the university was willing to house the temporary facility in the Pence Union Building, which has a suitable multipurpose room, flexible food service and college-level workers eager for part-time earnings, she said.

University officials also saw the center’s potential to create a learning connection between academic programs in journalism and public affairs and the real world of politics and government.

“It was very good for the university,” she said.

Contact Mike Prager at (509) 459-5454 or mikep@spokesman.com.

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