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Here’s why precinct results don’t tell the whole story on election night

Don't be shocked if you don't know whether or not your county voted for a certain candidate. The majority of Utah's votes are now mail-in votes, which delay the count.

"The majority of counties in Utah now vote by mail. Because any batch of ballots could include voters from multiple precincts, it is no longer helpful to track the number of precincts reporting to know when all votes have been counted," according to the Utah Elections Results page.

Still, you can keep track of how your county votes by visiting the Elections Results page. It should include updates over the next few days as all votes are tallied.

You’ve likely heard the phrase “precincts reporting” before. In fact, it’s probably something you’ll hear about or see on election night.

But now, precincts reporting is becoming less and less of a true indicator of the overall vote that a candidate receives.

There are a number of ways to vote, all of which contribute to the overall results. In addition to in-person voting, there are mail-in ballots, absentee votes and early in-person voting.

We’ve put together a quick explainer to help you understand why in an election with multiple options for voting, the term “precincts reporting” isn’t always a good barometer for reporting results.

What is a precinct?

A precinct is a certain district in a city marked or outlined for police protection. It’s a fixed number of districts that account for one polling place in a given area. Administration and governmental workers will divide the precincts to best serve police officers and polling places.

What does 'precincts reporting’ mean?

You’ll often hear this on major media newscasts when they’re reading election results. If CNN reporters say 25 percent of precincts are reporting a candidate has won, it means 1 out of every 4 locations has voted for that candidate. However, a news organization may call the state before all precincts report.

Why would a news organization call a race before all precincts report?

Well, like the Associated Press reported, news organizations get vote counts from a number of different methods — stringers, exit polls, mail-in ballot numbers and other data collected from government officials — to give them a more accurate idea of how precincts will vote.

“Our reporting is based on a spectrum of reporting modes, from an AP stringer at a town election official’s office calling our vote entry center with results given to him on a printout; to a county election official faxing or emailing us a tally receipt from their optical scanner; to folks at one of our centers manually gathering results from a county website; to a secretary of state elections office sending us XML documents with the most recent updates in all of their counties,” according to the AP.

Vote totals can change after precincts report, too

According to the New York Times, the number that precincts report to news organizations during election night can shift for a number of reasons: “Absentee ballots weren’t included at first and now they are; the local government hadn’t finished counting; an error was spotted and fixed."

In fact, jurisdictions have started to move away from simple precinct reports since it’s not always a clear indicator of how the election results are moving. There are also a number of Americans who vote in county vote centers, where anyone from within that county can vote, which can affect precinct results, according to the Times.

So, for an example, if you’re a Murray resident who voted in a hypothetical Sandy vote center, it’s unclear if your vote would be recorded for the precinct in Murray or Sandy.

What else contributes to the overall tallies?

More people are voting early, meaning a bulk of results come before election night.

As the Pew Research Center reported three weeks ago, more than 4 million voters had already cast their ballots either early, absentee or through mail-in ballots. In fact, if these numbers continue, that number could top 50 million votes — almost 4 million more than in 2012.

That year, 23.3 million people voted absentee, 16. 9 million voted early and 6.3 mailed in their voting ballot, according to Pew.

Nontraditional voting methods are also on the rise

It seems these nontraditional ways of voting have been on the climb in recent years.

Absentee ballots have been on the decline, Pew explained. But other versions of nontraditional methods have grown, like an increase in early voting and mail-in votes. Another method, called “in-person absentee,” allows people who would normally vote absentee to fill out their ballot and drop off the ballot in person before election day.

Some states have all their votes before precincts report

There are a few states that accept nontraditional voting more than others. In fact, there were 12 states in 2012 that had nontraditional methods account for more than half of the total vote, according to Pew.

Take a look at Oregon and Washington, where every single vote was conducted by mail.

The majority of counties in Utah now vote by mail. Because any batch of ballots could include voters from multiple precincts, it is no longer helpful to track the number of precincts reporting to know when all votes have been counted.