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How AP Calls Elections Before All The Votes Are In

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The call came at 10:05 p.m. EDT Tuesday, just over an hour after polls closed in Wisconsin: Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived the recall election and defeated Democrat Tom Barrett.

And that's when the questions started coming in: How can an election be called before all the votes are counted? And how can an organization call a race if people are still waiting to vote?

AP makes its calls based on a variety of factors, and never calls a race before poll close, says David Pace, a news editor in Washington who coordinates AP election calls.

If people were still voting when the call was made, they had to have been in line by the time polls closed, he said. No one new is allowed to get in line once polls close.

The AP calls races based on early vote returns provided by state and county elections offices, exit polls that conducted with voters and vote results from a random sample of precincts around the state. It's a complicated process that also compares the voting history of counties to make sure results are in line with past trends.

Our call in the Wisconsin governor's recall election was made with 37 percent of precincts reporting. Tabulations of early returns showed Walker ahead 59 percent to Barrett's 40 percent.

Although less than half of the state's precincts were reporting, only a handful of counties hadn't reported some of their results. So voters all across the state were represented in the calculations.

Also, most of the big counties had reported some of their votes. Milwaukee County, the state's largest and home to Barrett, had reported the fewest votes of the big counties. But the AP could still make the call because of the size of Walker's lead, Pace said.

"We knew Milwaukee was going to come in much more heavily for Barrett, but with such a big lead built-up statewide for Walker, there weren't enough votes for Barrett to overcome it," he said.

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How AP calls elections before all the votes are tallied

  Obama Romney
Obama Romney
332 206
Obama leading
Obama won
Romney leading
Romney won
Popular Vote
33 out of 100 seats are up for election. 51 are needed for a majority.
Democrat leading
Democrat won
Republican leading
Republican won
Democrats* Republicans
Current Senate 53 47
Seats gained or lost +2 -2
New Total 55 45
* Includes two independent senators expected to caucus with the Democrats: Angus King (Maine) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
All 435 seats are up for election. 218 are needed for a majority.
Democrat leading
Democrat won
Republican leading
Republican won
Democrats Republicans
Seats won 201 234
Click for Full Results