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Human error caused TV networks to briefly air wrong CA recall vote tally

September 15, 2021 GMT

CLAIM: During live CNN election coverage of the California recall election on Sept. 14, more than 350,000 votes to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom suddenly disappeared.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. Edison Research, the polling firm that provides election data to CNN, said a data reporting error by one of its staffers caused false vote totals to briefly appear on a live CNN broadcast. The error was fixed within two minutes.

THE FACTS: Within hours of Newsom handily fending off a recall attempt from Republicans in California on Tuesday, social media users began sharing a clip of someone watching CNN election night coverage, claiming it showed real-time election manipulation.

The video, which spread widely on Gab, Telegram, Twitter and Facebook, showed a ticker on the bottom of CNN’s screen with the question, “Should Gov. Newsom be recalled?” At first, the ticker displayed about 4.5 million “no” votes and 2.2 million “yes” votes. Moments later, the ticker’s tally of “yes” votes dropped to about 1.9 million.

“Where did they go?” says a man in the background of the video. “Four hundred thousand votes just disappeared?”

Republican commentators on Facebook and Twitter questioned why 351,000 votes were “DELETED,” called the clip proof of “fraud” and claimed it showed Newsom only kept his position because of machine “glitches.”

In reality, the vote changes had a simple explanation: a brief reporting error by an Edison Research staffer at a county office in Santa Clara, California. The changing numbers in the viral clip are a result of the error being fixed, according to Rob Farbman, executive vice president of Edison Research.

“While the ‘No’ vote was entered correctly at 11:19ET, the ‘Yes’ vote that appeared for 2 minutes on CNN was actually the ‘total’ vote of the combined ballots for Yes/No/ Santa Clara,” Farbman said in an email. “This error was entered at 11:19pm ET and corrected 2 minutes later at 11:21pm ET when we deleted the “total vote” in for ‘Yes’ and entered the correct ‘Yes’ vote.”

The error was not limited to CNN and affected several other networks that subscribe to Edison Research polling.

California voters rejected the effort to remove Newsom from office, The Associated Press reported on election night. Incomplete returns on Wednesday showed Newsom headed toward a landslide win with about 65% of the vote.

Similar misleading claims circulated after the 2020 presidential election and the Georgia Senate runoff election, when another quickly resolved error by Edison Research caused votes for candidate David Perdue to disappear from screens.

“We enter thousands of points of data and a mistake like this can be made,” Farbman said.

CNN declined a request for comment.

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This report has been updated to replace a quote from Edison Research Executive Vice President Rob Farbman. Farbman’s initial comments transposed references to the “Yes” and “No” votes, and he later notified AP about the error.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.