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College Junior Anya Tullman (left) and College Sophomore Tyler Jenkins-Wong (right) (Photo from Anya Tullman and Tyler Jenkins-Wong).

Penn staff and students affiliated with Penn’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies worked for the NBC News Decision Desk on Election Day.

Several PORES faculty members work at NBC News Decision Desk, helping the network project the outcome of races. PORES program staff analyzed data and polls broadcasted during NBC’s telecast on Nov. 2. When there are updates such as “too close to call” or “projected winner,” the staff at PORES are the ones making those calls. Two Penn students were also invited to join the PORES staff at the Comcast Technology Center, where they assisted the NBC News Decision Desk. 

While Election Day consisted of mostly local positions, there were also two highly contested governors races in New Jersey and Virginia. Governor Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) narrowly won re-election in New Jersey, and Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) was elected governor of Virginia. 

College junior Anya Tullman was one of the students who worked at NBC News Decision Desk on election night. Tullman spent her evening looking at NBC’s projections and data in comparison to other news sources, such as The Associated Press.

“It was cool to be in the room where it happened, to really see exactly how elections are called," Tullman, a former staffer of The Daily Pennsylvanian, said. "The fact that Penn has a program that is essentially in charge of elections for NBC is kind of crazy.” 

College sophomore Tyler Jenkins-Wong also worked with NBC on Election Day, arriving at the Comcast Technology Center while the polls were still open. 

Jenkins-Wong tracked turnout in different counties across Virginia and New Jersey through Twitter, phone calls, and emails. After the polls closed, he compared data from county and state websites to NBC's databases.

The PORES staff have a long-standing connection to NBC, which includes Stephanie Perry, executive director of the Fox Leadership Program and PORES. Perry runs the exit polls desks for NBC.

“The exit poll is the only poll where we are actually standing outside the polling place,” Perry said. “We know for a fact that the people answering these polls are voters.”

In past years, NBC News Decision Desk has conducted exit polls throughout the country, but with only a handful of races this year, NBC News decided only to cover exit polls in Virginia, Perry said. 

Andrew Arenge, director of operations for PORES and a member of NBC’s election night team since 2016, helps coordinate coverage that happens across all platforms of NBC, which includes MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, NBC News NOW, The Choice, and NBC’s social media platforms. 

NBC News works to prioritize accuracy over breaking the news first, PORES staff members explained.

“We won’t put a checkmark in a race until we are at least 99.5% sure," Arenge said. "We do a lot of statistics and analytics and data number crunching behind the scenes.”

Although many of the people at NBC News Decision Desk have years of experience collecting voting data and formulating projections, elections can still be full of unexpected surprises. 

Stephen Pettigrew, director of data sciences of PORES and the deputy executive director of the Fox Leadership Program, discussed how the NBC News Decision Desk trains for any election outcome. 

Some people might imagine decision rooms to be loud and full of arguing over when to call certain races. In reality, the Decision Desk is much more tame due to extensive preparation, Pettigrew explained.

“Last year, for example, I think when we got to Election Day, we had done somewhere around 20 to 25 tests, or rehearsals, of Election Day,” Pettigrew said. 

Even with preparation, Pettigrew said that election night itself is very demanding with new votes and data constantly coming in. 

Even though every news company has their own election broadcast, many work together both before and during elections. The National Election Pool is a group of news organizations, including ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC, who work together to project the winners of political races. 

“We essentially pull our resources together to hire an outside data provider editing research, and they are collecting the vote," Perry said. "We all get together and write the questionnaires for the exit poll, so I am executing this from every step of the way.”

Election Day can be a momentous occasion for political enthusiasts, Jenkins-Wong said.

“Election Day is our Olympics here and it’s just so cool to see professors you know working in a real world environment.”

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