On election night, AP assigns county reporters -- more commonly referred to in the industry as “stringers” or “freelance reporters"—to nearly every county (and city and town in New England). AP Director of Vote Tabulation Don Rehill, who estimates he's been through more than 300 separate election nights with AP, explains the process:

"Different states require different approaches but typically we'll have stringers at every county election office on election night. After the polls close, these stringers usually get a series of cumulative reports from the local officials, which they compile and call into a specific AP Vote Entry Center. A VEC operator, working through a dialogue with the stringer, enters the report in our newly designed vote entry interface, updating precincts reporting, and votes for each candidate/race. When the stringer gets an update—more votes and precincts—they call again and repeat the cycle. At the end of the night, we often ask supplemental questions about votes outstanding. Assuming that the results being entered by operators get past our rigorous system of vote checks and parameters, and are accepted, they are immediately available for transmission to members and customers.”

Rehill, who will mark his fifth national general election with AP in November, adds: “In many states we also have trained teams manually checking county or state election websites, comparing those results to the results provided by our stringers, and often entering them into our system. We also have electronic feeds of results from a number of state election authorities. And we now have the ability to report the results provided by our stringer in one county, results provided by a state feed in another county, and results gathered from a county website in another county, essentially creating a combination of the best available results which we report. Depending on their election package and means of transmission, our members and customers get updated results from every 30 seconds to every five to seven minutes.”

The earliest returns show up on news wires and special election services shortly after 6 p.m. ET, when the polls close in Indiana and Kentucky. The pace quickens to a peak between 10 p.m. and midnight ET. The count continues well into the early morning hour, and through the day Wednesday.

With the focus on the presidential election in 2012, AP distributes detailed reports on the race in each state, plus national presidential tables during the general election. And with control of both houses of Congress at stake, AP distributes frequently updated “trend” tables showing the party breakdown for the House and Senate.

In addition to transmitting returns in standard newspaper formats, AP delivers returns online to newspapers, broadcasters and others. Regularly updated reports show up on customers’ websites and are available though the AP Vote Count system for newsroom use.

AP serves the television networks with results on top-of-the-ticket races for Congress, governor and some ballot issues of national interest. Election computers serve every state and the District of Columbia. AP members and subscribers get returns on contests down through the state legislature, as well as state ballot issues.

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