For the US presidential elections, the Associated Press announced winners for several states although a significant portion of the votes were uncounted.

One example is Illinois where at the moment of writing (12:32 Central European Time) 80% of the votes are counted

  • Mr. Biden received 55,1% or 2.881.554 votes
  • Mr. Trump received 43% or 2.246.472 votes

that sums up to 5.346.276‬ votes. If 80% of the votes are counted that would make that the total amount of votes is 5.346.276‬/0.8=6.682.845.

That means that 6.682.845 - 5.346.276 = 1.336.569 votes are uncounted. Which means that theoretically Mr. Trump could still get 2.246.472 + 1.336.569 = 3.583.041 votes. And thus could still win the state, although Mr. Biden was already announced the winner.

Although this is statistically unlikely it would not be impossible. And this kind of bothers me, because I took an extreme example but one could imagine less extreme cases where the results could really change.

It would seem reasonable that only if the total number of remaining/uncounted votes is less than the difference one could announce a winner, but apparently they use much more flexible criteria. What are the limits of probability applied when prematurely announcing winners before all votes are counted?

Note that this question is not about the particular example, but about the general principle of officially announcing a winner while theoretically the other candidate could still win.

EDIT based on the given answers the following part is not correct.

Also one could consider possibilities of "legal" "fraud" where some of the votes, would just be counted later. Say During manual counting 10% of votes for Candidate A are put aside for later counting, or votes from particular regions with particular preferences are counted later. In such scenarios without really changing any vote from A to B election results could still be influenced just by postponing a selection of the votes.

EDIT My previous understanding was that the states were called before all votes were counted and that they would not continue to count the remaining votes. But based on the answers this information was only a projection so all votes will still be counted, and there is no fraud except for the influence that preliminary results might have on the voting behavior in states where voting was still open, due to the time difference.

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    "the Associated Press announced winners" doesn't have any effect. The state will announce a result after it has counted all the votes, and that does have an effect.
    – Caleth
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 12:25
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    In the end, every vote will (should) be counted, regardless of any calls by news organizations. The order in which votes are tallied is irrelevant for the final outcome, since they'll all get counted eventually. The current view of who's winning may change as votes are tallied, but once the votes are cast, the result is fixed, and only the final tally will tell us for certain what that result is. Assuming vote-counting proceeds as planned, there's not much that can change the outcome at this point (although we still don't know what that outcome is). Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 14:09
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    What is "European time"? Europe spans six-seven time zones (depending if one counts the Azores or not).
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 15:15
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    The Asscoiated Press is not officially announcing winners.
    – Christian
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 15:47
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    "In such scenarios without really changing any vote from A to B election results could still be influenced just by postponing a selection of the votes." - this makes no sense. In what way would this influence the election results? All it would do is give a misleading impression for a very short period of time.
    – JBentley
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 9:44

3 Answers 3


First things first: The projections made by the Associated Press, or by any other news organization, are not official. Those unofficial projections do not determine the makeup of the Electoral College. In Illinois, it is the State Board of Elections that proclaims the official results of elections for presidential electors. Other states do it differently, but it is always a state official / set of state officials who make the official proclamation, and it is usually days after the election. (It can take up to 21 days in Illinois.)

What those unofficial projections made by news organizations can do, when they are wrong, is to reduce the standing of the organization that made the erroneous projection. The AP does not want a repeat of the 2000 election when they projected that Albert Gore would win Florida, but soon thereafter retracted that projection.

That said, projecting Illinois a bit early was easy. The AP, along with other organizations, look not only at the outstanding vote, but also at where in the state those outstanding votes are. Illinois is a reliably blue (Democratic voting) state, and the outstanding votes were in the bluest parts of Illinois. Mr. Trump was never going to make up that 600000 vote deficit in Illinois. Similarly, Mr. Trump was projected to be the winner in Indiana and Kentucky well before the votes in those states were anywhere close to final. Mr. Biden could in theory have come from behind in Indiana and Kentucky. In practice, that would not have happened.

In fact, the Associated Press called the election in several states including Illinois and Indiana, as soon as polls closed in those states. In other words, the AP called the election in some states with zero precincts reporting. Suppose their projection (a guess) in one of those states went the other way. The projections have no official bearing. The projections gone wrong with zero precincts reporting would have only served to make the AP look bad.

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    So the results in the news are all just projections, and nothing is official until in a couple of days?
    – Hjan
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 14:25
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    @Hjan It takes longer than a couple of days for the official results. There are always issues such as potentially spoiled ballots, potentially invalid signatures, ballots that don't scan for one reason or another, provisional ballots, etc. It took over a month in the case of the 2000 Florida election. Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 14:43
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    @frеdsbend: Actually, AP never retracted their initial call. They still have Biden as winning AZ, as does Fox News, but other outlets (e.g. the Washington Post and the New York Times) still have it in the undecided column. At this point, it's basically down to a difference of opinion regarding whether Trump can "come from behind" in Maricopa county, or if the race is a lock.
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 5:27
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    @frеdsbend: No state is official yet. Certification usually takes a week or so at a minimum. All of the AP's calls are "technically not official yet."
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 17:54
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    @phoog A distressing amount of the US political system seems to be enforced by an optimistic assumption that most of the people involved can be counted on to do the honest and honorable thing... Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 12:06

One example is Illinois where at the moment of writing (12:32 European time ) 80% of the votes are counted

The 80% is not the percentage of votes, but the percentage of polling places that have reported vote totals. The number of polling places is known (fixed) at the start of the day.

The total number of votes will not, and can not, be known until all polling places have reported results and all mail in / absentee votes have been counted.


Q: Does AP use "precincts reporting"?

A: In all races tabulated by AP, we provide details on precincts reporting. This figure is the percentage of precincts in a race from which AP has received and is reporting results. In many states, this figure is a reasonably accurate estimate of the amount of vote counted, particularly in those states that do not separately report results for ballots cast in advance from those cast on Election Day.

  • I guess each polling place could easily count and sum up the people visiting to vote, separately from the actual votes, so i am not so sure if this is true.
    – Hjan
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 14:32
  • Some sites do attempt to guess how many voters will be remaining, some don’t. The AP does as Rick says, but then sites do what they want with that information of course. But actually tallying people is harder than you think, and nearly as hard as counting their votes themselves.
    – Joe
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 14:43
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    @Joe Tallying votes in Pennsylvania is particularly hard this year as not all of the ballots have arrived. Mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania must be postmarked by Election Day but can be received up to three days after the election. There is no tally of those late-arriving ballots, yet; they haven't arrived. How can they count ballots that are still in transit? Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 15:12
  • The number of voters per precinct is not necessarily evenly distributed. In rural areas, you can't expect people to travel long a long distance/time to vote so there tend to me more precincts in these areas relative to the population.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 15:52
  • Somewhat related question on an issue with very small (by population) precincts: politics.stackexchange.com/q/59690/130
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 16:05

Calling an election is like calling a sports game. You take a lot of things into account when calling a game, and deciding that one team has no chance to win.

If it’s halftime, and the 2007 Patriots (NFL) are up 32-3, I’d feel comfortable turning that game off and watching something more competitive. Same goes for Brazil up 2-0 after five minutes in to a game against the Trinidad team in soccer (football). Sure, there’s still plenty of time in the game, but are they really going to win?

Of course, it the US is up 3-1 over Mexico in soccer, odds are they will win, but I wouldn’t call the game. And if the 2013 Lions go up 14-3 over the Packers, I probably would still consider them underdogs to win.

That’s the same thing that’s going on here. The election’s not called in any of these states by anything official - rather, these are the equivalent of sportscasters deciding that one person is going to win and telling you to turn to a different game. Their statistical models say that at this point it’s exceedingly unlikely to for the outcome to be different.

  • I understand what you mean. The way these "calls" or projections are presented however gave me the impression that they were already final and official. My question was about what levels of confidence they apply to give the call.
    – Hjan
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 14:39
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    I think plenty of sports fans love watching the match where their team wins big to completion and won't switch off the match 5 minutes into the game (or at all), but somehow I don't imagine Trump fans loving to watch the Wyoming or West Virginia vote closely, nor Biden fans loving to watch the California, Hawaii, or DC vote closely. I could be wrong.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 4, 2020 at 15:21
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – CDJB
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 15:26
  • @gerrit sure, games are interesting because the actual mechanics are interesting, while counting votes is only interesting because we care about the results. Guessing the final result is still the same in both scenarios though.
    – Kat
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 17:53

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