Traditionally, exit polls are done by physically presenting a subset of voters with an anonymous survey as they exit the polling place. In normal years, this provides a fairly good picture of the electorate and their demographics. In the 2020 election, however, the large increase in mail-in voting complicates this picture. Exit polls could accurately describe in-person, election-day voters, but we know that the population who voted by mail is significantly different from the population that voted in person (for example, in PA Trump won among election day voters, while Biden won among mail-in voters by more than a 2:1 margin).

For the exit poll data that's been released, has anything been done to account for the mail-in voter population? Or is this data only an accurate description of the in-person, election-day voter population?


1 Answer 1


What, if anything, has been done to account for mail-in votes in 2020 exit poll data?

This following referenced article suggests that, for some time, exit polls have been supplemented by telephone surveys to compensate for both early and absentee voting. It seems rather likely the method would not have changed much for the 2020 election.

In an American Association for Public Opinion Research article, Explaining Exit Polls.

Background of exit polling

A regular series of national exit polls is conducted in the United States for the major national news organizations. Election exit polling began in the 1970s as separate data collection operations conducted by each of the major television networks. The separate operations were later consolidated into a single data collection enterprise in order to save money. The exit polls between 1989 and 1992 were conducted by a consortium called Voter Research & Surveys (VRS) which became Voter News Service (VNS) which conducted the exit polls from 1993 to 2002. In 2003, ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, NBC and the Associated Press formed the National Election Pool (NEP). Starting in 2017, the National Election Pool (NEP) is now comprised of ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC. All NEP exit polls since 2003 have been conducted by Edison Research.


Exit polls face many challenges especially given the changing nature of how and when people vote. These challenges include:

  • Changes in the way people vote The share of all voters who cast their votes before Election Day using by-mail absentee ballots or in-person early voting has increased from approximately 16% of voters in the 2000 presidential election to an estimated 42% of voters in the 2016 presidential election. Telephone surveys of absentee and early voters are used to supplement the NEP’s national exit polls as well as state exit polls when there is a high proportion of absentee and early voters.

This blog, nep & edison research to once again conduct exit poll of record, October 12, 2020, supports the use of telephone surveys to supplement exit polls for the 2020 election.

The NEP’s exit poll is the only survey that will be released on election night that represents the views and opinions of actual voters interviewed as they cast their ballots all across the country.

As it has since 2004, the NEP exit poll will also include extensive telephone surveys of those planning to vote by mail to ensure that all voters are represented in Election Night coverage across the pool’s member networks and subscribers. This year, those polls will reach more than 25,000 voters casting ballots before Election Day.

This Politco article, Is this the beginning of the end of the exit poll?, December 9, 2017, reports that both the Associated Press and Fox News have left the NEP and will rely on their own polling.

The AP and Fox News haven’t left the playing field: They plan to conduct their own exit polls and other experiments that they hope will more accurately — and efficiently — replace the existing exit poll.

Both the AP and Fox projects eschew the underlying history of exit polls: questioning voters in person as they leave their polling place. Instead, the “Fox News Voter Analysis” in last month’s New Jersey and Virginia.gubernatorial races consists of telephone and internet interviews with voters and non-voters alike — “for enhanced analytical purposes,” according to a methodology statement.

The AP experimented in 2016 with capturing voters when they left the polls — though not in person. “The study was designed to use geolocation technology in smartphones to verify that participants had voted, either at Election Day polling places or early-voting centers. Then, they would be sent exit poll questionnaires to complete on their smartphones,” said David Pace, AP’s news editor for race calls and special projects, in a press release earlier this year describing the 2016 project.

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