Excerpts from the chapter on Elections, by Tom Jory, in the AP history "Breaking News: How the Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else" (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007)

… The 1848 election was the first in which all states voted on the same day and the first in which the telegraph was used to gather returns from all over the country. Dr. Alexander Jones, educated in medicine but drawn to journalism and AP’s first general agent, brought that election and the telegraph together to collect results from the thirty states that voted then. The count went on for seventy-two hours, and telegraph tolls exceeded $1,000, an enormous sum in those days.

…Over the years, AP used every available means to secure reliable returns. On December 11, 1860, the New York Times carried a dispatch from Fort Kearney, Nebraska, reporting that “the California Pony Express passed here at 5 o’clock this morning and left the following to be telegraphed to the Associated Press.” Included were full election returns from every county in California, showing Lincoln with 38,702 votes and Douglas with 8,060.

…In December 1892, the Associated Press was incorporated in Illinois, combining once and for all the New York AP and the Western Associated Press. Melville E. Stone, who had been editor of the Chicago Daily News, became general manager of the new association. Over the next three presidential elections, AP gradually set up its own vote-counting machinery and called more and more on its own staff and member newspapers to provide results.

…By 1900, AP had become the standard for election night reporting. The Washington Post advised its readers of plans to display results on a huge screen in front of the newspaper’s building, including bulletins from AP, so the public could have returns “hot from the wires and without a moment’s delay.”

…By the 1940s, counting votes on election night had shifted to the Washington bureau, which managed coverage of the campaigns as well as of the conventions.

…The election in 1952 was notable for another innovation to speed up the count for AP, a nineteen-hundred-pound machine that was almost too big for the freight elevator at the Washington bureau, and required special wiring and extra fuses to run. “Yup, the mechanical brain really is a whiz on elections,” White House correspondent Douglas Cornell wrote after the votes had been tallied. “Feed in a stack of cards with holes in them, and 35 seconds later out comes a complete table showing just how the presidential election is going, state by state.”

The “mechanical brain” was an IBM accounting machine. “In other elections,” Cornell remembered, “returns were penciled onto mimeographed forms, compiled on adding machines and posted on a big blackboard used by lead writers and editors. The modern version is to write key figures on cards which are run through the punching machine, one card for each state.” But that did not mean an end to the old tote boards and blackboards, comforting relics that were set up in the Washington bureau every election night until 2004, when high-tech computer displays took over.

…Gradually, in the 1960s and ’70s, AP brought computers into the mix, frequently hiring local data processors to tabulate results phoned to state centers. The AP bureau in New Orleans was a pioneer in computerizing election-night vote-counting. The first computerized go-round involved punch-cards which, when fed into a processor, produced tabulated returns that then had to be keyed onto AP wires.

…The first real complaint about calling races before the polls had closed was triggered by a presidential candidate rather than the media. The year was 1980, and [Walter] Mears, who was writing AP’s main story for the presidential election, was puzzling over how to call Ronald Reagan the winner without flatly declaring the race over. It was before 10 p.m. on the East Coast and the outcome was clear, but the polls still had not closed in California and other western states.

“At that time,” Mears remembered, “I was trying to figure out the wording for an election story lead that would almost but not quite declare Reagan the winner, hedging because we were still counting votes.” Then came word that President Jimmy Carter had called Reagan about an hour earlier to concede. “No presidential candidate had conceded early since Alton B. Parker bowed to Theodore Roosevelt, at 9:00 p.m. on election night 1904,” Mears wrote.

...After 2000, AP began to move back to relying on its own devices…For the 2004 election, it built and tested a new system, with checks and double-checks for accuracy, to take over the vote count. A new consortium, the National Elections Pool, was created to manage exit polling.

In the end, AP counted the vote in 6,860 races, posting 171,795 updates in a twelve-hour period up to 6 a.m. the day after the election. In addition to the TV networks that were served exclusively by AP, more than six hundred members and other customers took special state election wires, and 336 signed up for AP Elections Online. This Web-based service included for many a customized page of continually updated returns, with color maps to help display voting patterns in states and across the country. Many customers signed up for the AP Politics website, which included access to a browser similar in design to that provided to the TV networks.

AP Television News broadcast live from tabulation centers in New York and Spokane, Washington, to a worldwide audience estimated at more than a billion viewers.

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