How to Verify Almost 5 Million Votes in Georgia
After three counts of almost 5 million votes, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger re-certified the state’s presidential election results Dec. 7.
11Alive Executive Producer Erin Peterson has been deep in the numbers, too.
Full transparancy: I’ve now spent a full week calculating and verifying nearly 5 million #Georgia votes for 159 counties for @11AliveNews. My count is currently off by 1 SINGLE VOTE and I can’t find it! I will not rest until I can answer where that vote is hiding.
— Erin Peterson (@ErinKPeterson) November 9, 2020
We caught up with Peterson, who explained her verification process and what journalists can learn for future elections.
Q: Talk about your workflow for tracking and checking almost five million votes. Did you have back-end access and/or how did you go about this process?
Georgia has never had an election quite like this one. We got a preview of swing state status in 2016 and 2018, but this was the first real test of our changing demographics. It’s also the first test of an entirely new reporting system for the Georgia Secretary of State. New machines, new absentee ballot procedures, and a new website.
WXIA Elections Executive Producer Ric Garni met with SOS and county officials several times over the course of the three months running up to election day to get a good handle on how it works and what we were in for. For example– when would they start tabulating the absentee ballots- on election day or before? How much before? Would those ballots show up in the individual precincts where the voters are registered, or as their own batch of results? We asked dozens and dozens of questions to prepare. We also assembled a 53-page briefing book highlighting laws, rules, the process, history, various legal scenarios, and profiles of main races and candidates.
We thought we were ready… ha!
Our plan was to rely on the SOS main page for statewide totals. We also assembled a team using several journalists and a few members of our marketing staff and broke out the counties into groups. Each had an assigned point person and direct contact information for a county official on the ground. That process has always served us very well in the past. We had a staffing plan through Sunday, Nov. 8. But by the 5th, it was clear we were going to need to recalibrate for several reasons.
1) We were still going to be counting through the weekend
2) We discovered the SOS main page wouldn’t tell us when the counties would update, sometimes lagging by hours.
Three journalists on this team already embraced data: Chief Investigative reporter Brendan Keefe, Investigative Producer Ciara Frisbie, and myself. It turns out, years of crunching stats gave us another secret weapon: Sports Producer Alec McQuade. He really helped us figure out why our numbers were not matching and how to get the information other ways.
That’s when we started building our own database on the fly. Using a spreadsheet– we first grabbed the current vote counts for all 159 counties with their last update timestamp. Then, we’d take that information, calculate the change in votes, and add it to the Trump versus Biden spread.
The main workflow looked something like this:
So how would we know when one of the 159 counties updated? We cheated. Sort of. The NYT had an elaborate data scraping code pulling information directly from each county page through the Secretary of State’s office and updating automatically. Hats off to the NYT developers who set that up. It was beautiful and worked amazingly well. We didn’t have the time or the knowledge to do that on the fly. Instead, we discovered an open-source data scraper that would update as soon as the NYT did. That scraper would alert us to which county changed totals. Then we could go back to the individual county home page and confirm the change. It saved us from searching through all 159 counties every time the votes changed and really helped us stay on top of tracking all of the totals.
It was clunky, elaborate and not very intuitive. While it wasn’t the most efficient, it helped us through the first 16 days of ballot counting. That’s how long it took to finish. 16 days and a margin of about 12,000 votes.
Q: Is this something you’ve done before and/or was it completely new to you?
My primary responsibilities deal with leading teams of long-form journalists and working on innovation projects. I’ve always liked both politics and data, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m lucky that I’ve received some great training through IRE and Poynter over the years. In 2008, I helped lead election coverage while working at a Michigan TV station, and again here in Atlanta in 2012. But I was a little out of practice prior to our disastrous June 2020 primary.
Q: Beyond the sheer number of votes, what other challenges did you face with this type of work?
We knew this would be different given the number of absentee ballots. We knew it would take a lot longer. But I don’t think we could have grasped just how close it would be and how long that process might last. As I write this, election night was EXACTLY one month ago, and we are still refreshing the SOS main page for results from the 3rd complete tally of Georgia votes. The possibility of an audit was all of one sentence in my 53-page briefing book. The recount process was two paragraphs. We did anticipate a scenario where control of the Senate could come down to Georgia in January.
Misinformation remains another huge hurdle for us. As an entire news staff, we’ve worked hard on training over the past two years to identify and combat it. But this is still is a Tsunami coming at us constantly. Trying to set the record straight, without giving oxygen to false claims is a never-ending challenge. We’ve spent a lot of time studying Georgia Code Title 21. Elections § 21-2 to make sure we understood the law and what to expect next. The other struggle is trying to explain in a way that’s easy to digest. It’s not just enough to tell people what’s happening, but it’s also our job to put that in context.
Throw in the remote work communication issues, COVID safety rules preventing us from reporting in crowded indoor spaces, and you really have one crazy race.
Moral of the story: We trained to run a 10K up a hill, but this race was a surprise marathon up a mountain.
Q. Any recommendations for other journalists who may want to try something like this? What would you recommend for future elections?
We learned a lot from this. The big lesson in this lift– was how critical data journalists become. I can’t stress enough the importance of the pre-election work we did.
Learn the law. Understand the rules. If it’s too dense or confusing– find an attorney to help you break it down. Ask that person if you can keep calling with questions. For example, Georgia is one of only two states in the nation with the 50% plus one vote rule to declare a winner. Knowing how to explain that in advance, saved us time.
Build relationships with your local election officials. For us, that meant the Secretary of State’s office and four major counties. Have a point person you call who’s on the ground and knows what’s up. Every county board handled things slightly differently. Being able to pick up the phone and ask questions prior to the emergency scenarios establishes trust on both sides.
Context is key. In Georgia, small rural counties usually report results faster than large metro counties. Here, that means it looks like there is a HUGE republican lead in early returns, while the blue strongholds come in later. It’s also super helpful to be able to explain what do your election processes usually look like. When was the last major close race or recount? How was that handled? What did we learn from that? Despite what seems like chaos here in Georgia, the actual election day and new reporting process were among the most transparent and efficient we’ve ever had. Our system worked exactly how it was supposed to work.
Understand the results. We’re an NBC affiliate and use AP reporting software. We had calls with NBC about their process and found out how the AP breaks down their process. It was great to get some tips from the election experts in advance. We were also able to ask questions once we knew we were in some of the “worst-case” scenarios.
Answer questions! We have tons of ways people can submit questions, text, email, social media, and a Google voice phone number. There’s a lot of value in responding to individual questions on social media or emails from the viewer comment box. It can feel redundant, but I really believe it also builds a lot of confidence in the reporting and helps gauge where the audience is and what they want to know.
Pace yourself. Make sure there are multiple people who understand how the systems all work. We had to shift and rotate a lot by day eight. By day 14 or 15, most of us were pretty burned out.
The good news is, we get to test those lessons again quickly with the rare double Senate runoff on Jan. 5. Now that we know how the new system works, we’re investing some time and working on some potential partnerships which will streamline the clunky spreadsheet Anchor Christie Diez and I created in the middle of the night.
Q. Anything you would do differently next time?
Seriously though, you do not want to know how much takeout was delivered to my house. My eating, sleeping, and exercise went out the window. I’m not at my best if I’m not doing those basic things. Next time, I hope to better incorporate the things I know help keep me sane.
On a larger scale, I would train a larger team prior to election day. Our team is amazing and really went above and beyond the call of duty. Everyone rose to the challenge. Next time, I’d like for that to happen without the stress and pressure of learning a new system and reporting live on TV within 20 minutes. I regret getting stuck in that situation.
I would also invest time in a better reporting scrapping set up for data. We’ve never needed it before. But now that I know, I will work to make sure it’s a priority. I don’t want to just hope there is a benevolent coder out there with a site to come to our rescue.
Q. Anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked you or covered?
I was really pleased with the outpouring of positive feedback we got from our coverage. I think that happened because we did a couple of things well. We explained the process. We were transparent about what we did and didn’t know. We answered questions. If we didn’t know the answers, we’d find them. When our system wasn’t working, we looked for creative solutions and built our own. We recruited outside resources to help serve as reinforcements. A long time ago, I had a News Director tell me, “you know you’re doing something right if everyone hates you.” In this case, we knew we were doing something right when both Democrats and Republicans were using the same reporting to shore up their points.