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How NBC News Projects Elections Winners

NBC News will not project a winner in a state until after the last scheduled poll closing time in that state.
Image: A voter is reflected in the glass frame of a poster while leaving a polling site in Atlanta
A voter is reflected in the glass frame of a poster while leaving a polling site in Atlanta, during early voting Nov. 1, ahead of the Nov. 8 election day. If all goes smoothly, the American people will choose a new president on Tuesday, the Electoral College will affirm the election and either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump will take the oath of office Jan. 20.David Goldman / AP

NBC News relies on two key sources of information during the general election. The National Election Pool, a consortium formed by NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and the AP, provides exit polls, absentee polls, precinct votes in selected sample precincts, and models for the analysis of the election information. The Associated Press delivers statewide vote counts as well as county by county results for general elections.

NBC News election unit analysts will first examine exit polls, any absentee polls and estimates in a given race to determine if the race can be called. Analysts also examine results from selected sample precincts, county by county model results, the actual raw votes (both statewide and county by county) and additional statistical information. In order to make a call, all senior election unit analysts must agree, the NBC News director of elections must agree, and the senior news division management representative must agree. If everyone agrees, a call is made.

When all the votes have been counted, a candidate may be named the apparent winner.

NBC News will not project a winner in a state until after the last scheduled poll closing time in that state. If the race appears to be close in any given state, an abundance of caution will be used before calling a race in that state.

The increase in absentee and early voting has required a thorough re-evaluation of election projection methods to ensure that absentee voters are properly accounted for. Absentee ballot polls and analysis of early voting data will be conducted where appropriate and statistical models account for this trend.

The director of NBC News' decision desk, the decision analysts and the quality control desk will be isolated from the calls of other networks. In addition, the entire decision desk area has been physically isolated from NBC News editorial teams.

Understanding election night calls

NBC News will be clear about its nomenclature during the entire election process. In addition, NBC News will explain methodology for collecting data it presents. Here are some terms you will hear on TV and read on the web on election night:

Projected winner: NBC has made a projection that a candidate will win the race, but the vote count is not complete. This call is made only after all the polls are scheduled to have closed in a state.

Apparent winner: NBC has tallied enough votes to indicate that a candidate has won the race, but the results may well depend upon a potential recount or final official tallies.

Winner: A candidate who has clearly won the race, beyond the normal margin for a recount. "Winner" will not be used unless returns make the outcome a virtual certainty.

Note that none of these terms refers to the "official" winner, since most states take weeks to certify a winner in an election.

Too early to call: There is not enough data to allow analysts to make a call.

Too close to call: While there is data in the systems, the numbers are too close to allow analysts to make a call.

Senate Composition: The Decision Desk tracks individual Senate races. This is not a projection of the entire Senate but reported results “at this hour” as individual races are called. The composition will show the totals in the new Senate by party, showing the new called races added in with seats that are not up for re-election this year.

House Projection: This is a projection of the House as a whole. For each of the 435 individual House races, the Decision Desk calculates the probability of a Democratic, Republican, or Independent victory in that house seat, based on pre-election research. During the night, election analysts examine all the available vote data and adjust the probabilities for each House seat that changes from its pre-election probability. The model then calculates the most probable outcome of the election in the House and also calculates an estimate of the probability of error expressed as a number of seats plus or minus. In addition, individual House calls are also made.

Understanding results on receives data from NEP and from the Associated Press. NEP gathers two sets of data on Election Day: Exit polls, conducted by NEP, and projection information which is used by NBC to "call," or project, a race once all the polls have closed in that state. The Associated Press collects unofficial vote tallies, as reported by election officials.

For exit polls, voters leaving the polling place in selected voting districts are handed a questionnaire with both demographic (sex, race, age) and attitudinal questions (Do you approve or disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job?). They are also asked to indicate how they voted. Those responses are collected and then transmitted to the NEP, where the results are tabulated and reported.

For vote tallies, results are gathered from election officials in each state as the vote is reported. These are "unofficial" returns because the tallies have not been rechecked and certified by state election authorities.