Jan. 6 hearings beg election question: How are races called?

Politics

WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 13: Chris Stirewalt, former Fox political editor, is sworn-in before testifying during a hearing by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol in the Cannon House Office Building on June 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. The bipartisan committee, which has been gathering evidence for almost a year related to the January 6 attack at the U.S. Capitol, will present its findings in a series of televised hearings. On January 6, 2021, supporters of former President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol Building during an attempt to disrupt a congressional vote to confirm the electoral college win for President Joe Biden. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — Election night projections during the 2020 presidential race were at the center of Monday’s House select committee hearing regarding the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, trying to shed light on the decision that reverberated through the White House that night.

Former Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt was part of the team that decided on election night 2020 to call Arizona for now-President Joe Biden, which reportedly irritated then-President Donald Trump, changing the mood inside the room that night.

In his testimony Monday to the House select committee Stirewalt, now NewsNation’s political editor, explained his team’s decision to call the race in Arizona, was based on math, not politics.

“I don’t have any ballots here,” Stirewalt said. “We’re just some nerds in a room with cool computers, a lot of great survey data and a lot of experience around elections. That’s it.”

News agencies call a race based on projections, not the final vote counts, which could take weeks to complete. Those projections are based on data analysis and mathematical calculations, free of editorial input, Decision Desk HQ advisor Scott Tranter said.

“It’s a race projection,” Tranter said. “A call implies that it’s final. It is not final. Nor do we have the power to make it final.”

Practices vary by news agency, but oftentimes news outlets report election night totals as unofficial, since vote counts for some races are still incomplete. Agencies also have their own methodology and standards for determining when to call races.

The Associated Press, for example, may decide not to call a race if the margin between the top two candidates is less than 0.5 percentage points, according to the organization’s website. They also may choose not to call winners in races for U.S. House if the margin is less than 1,000 votes. The same is true for state legislature races if the margin is less than 2 percentage points or 100 votes, according to AP.

Stirewalt testified Monday that he worked with a team that had access to its own set of data through the AP and a data analysis program that they used to unanimously project the winner of the presidential election in Arizona.

“We had a different set of data than our competitors did. We had more research and we had a better system and we had a great team,” Stirewalt said during his testimony.

Decision Desk HQ, which NewsNation relies on to determine when to call certain races, said projections come down to a “simple algebra problem.” The variables, Tranter said, include the number of total votes cast, how many candidates are in the field, how many votes a particular candidate needs to get the majority of votes.

“The problem is not all those things are known,” Tranter said. “We know how many candidates are in the field. But even on election day, we don’t know exactly how many votes are cast until they’re all counted. So there’s a whole art and science around trying to figure out how many votes are going to be cast.”

Once that’s determined, they develop a projection for how those votes will be distributed among the candidates, Tranter siad.

“People like us have mathematical formulas and equations and projections that allow us to do those two variables so that we can get to a 99.9% certainty about how something is going to play at, project at,” Tranter said.

Stirewalt’s team was the first to call Arizona for Biden on election night. A phenomenon known as the red mirage drew added scrutiny and, in some cases, criticism against outlets that called races in states such as Arizona, where vote counts appeared to favor Trump early on, but ultimately favored Biden.

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