Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

November 14, 2012

Don’t tell CNN or Fox News, but counting election returns is still important

In a few more weeks, the presidential election of 2012 will be just a distant — although frustrating — memory for most across the region.

However, this is the first column I’ve had the opportunity to write since knowing the results of the Nov. 6 election, and a few frustrations are still fresh on my mind. I’ll admit these aren’t new frustrations. In fact, it’s more of a disturbing trend that I’ve seen over the years with each passing presidential election. I’m sure many of our readers who watched the returns on television can relate to what I’m about to say.

Many years ago, votes were actually counted before winners were projected. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Nowadays the competing television networks seem to project winners based upon exit polls. Exit polls by the way aren’t actual votes. Those are just voters who are questioned about who they voted for after leaving the polls. So the data — which is admittedly useful in showing trends — is still at the end of the day no more accurate than those national polls that showed Mitt Romney ahead of President Barack Obama. Those polls — obviously — proved to be inaccurate.

I’ll give you a few examples of what we saw on election night. Only a few minutes after polls were closed in West Virginia, the state was called for Mitt Romney by CNN. OK. No surprise here. We always knew Romney would win West Virginia. But shouldn’t we wait — at least until 1 percent of the vote is in — before calling the race? Apparently not. Even more confusing was the fact that Republican Morgan Griffith (and no disrespect is intended here for the good Congressman from Virginia’s 9th Congressional District) was almost immediately called as the winner over Democrat Anthony Flaccavetno. Once again I’ll admit we didn’t expect Flaccavetno to win the race, but it would have been nice to have seen at least 1 percent of the vote before the race was called. After all, we were updating our website throughout the evening with actual numbers. So how can you call a race for a certain candidate without any numbers? And while Republicans were largely successful in sweeping local races in the coalfield counties of southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia, how fair was it for those voters who actually cast a ballot for Flaccavetno to be told he lost before any actual numbers were in?

But the biggest frustration had to be the presidential race. I thought, and felt, Romney had momentum going into the final stretch. But you could just sense that some of the networks — CNN in particular — were just ready to pull the trigger at any minute and call the race for Obama. And oddly enough — it was actually Fox News that called the race for Obama first — leaving CNN to scramble minutes later before calling the race for Obama. And while this was happening, Romney had actually retaken the lead in Ohio, and in Florida the race was still too close to call. Yet the 24-hour news channels were calling the race for Obama. Why not exercise a little patience here? Why call a race in a certain state for Obama when the precincts that are in at the moment show a virtual tie? In the case of CNN their argument was that it was OK to say Obama would win Florida because most of the counties that were not reporting yet were heavily Democratic. OK. But so is West Virginia. And West Virginia overwhelmingly voted in support of Romney while neighboring Virginia — a state that was once a sure bet for Republicans — once again went with Obama. So you shouldn’t assume that just because a certain county trends Democratic or Republican that it will actually vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate.

Yet CNN and Fox News did make that assumption. How unfortunate. In the end, they were correct. Obama still — somehow — won. The popular vote was excruciatingly close. The Electoral College vote — surprisingly not so close. I’ll admit — I was wrong on most of my election night predictions. First off — I predicted that we wouldn’t know who the winner of the presidential race would be until the next day because at least one battleground state would still be counting results into the early morning hours. Probably Ohio, Florida or even Virginia. Well Florida was still counting votes into the early morning hours — as was Ohio and Virginia. But that didn’t stop Fox News and CNN from racing to declare Obama the winner.

I also predicted that Democrats would sweep the new House District 27 seat in Mercer and Raleigh counties.  Once again, I was wrong. The Republicans enjoyed a clean sweep of the race. But guess what? I could have called that race early. With 30 of 44 precincts in — it appeared clear that Republicans John Shott, Joe Ellington and Marty Gearheart were going to win. But Democrat Ryan Flanigan was putting up some pretty strong numbers, and 10 precincts were still out. So I resisted the temptation to call the race until the last 10 precincts were in.

 Counting numbers — and actual poll results — isn’t a bad thing. We should in fact still do that before we start projecting winners based upon sometimes unreliable exit polling numbers. Sadly, I doubt CNN or Fox News will follow my suggestion in future elections. Maybe I should turn the channel to C-Span.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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