How We Beat the House — in Tallying the Health Care Vote

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“All your keystrokes are live,” typed Wilson Andrews, a graphics editor, at 2:08 p.m. Two software engineers and three graphics editors sat up a little straighter. Everything we entered into the Google sheet in front of us was going directly to The Times’s live tally of the House vote on the American Health Care Act. No backup, no editing, no second source.

The project started with a simple question from a graphics editor, Tom Giratikanon: “What is the fastest we can get votes from Congress onto our website?” (Tallies are usually available on the House or Senate website about an hour after the vote.)

Every few days, Tom offered another idea about how we could get data faster. I called every press office and contact I could find. I hassled our congressional reporters. I tried to reverse engineer what other news organizations were doing.

Then, while watching senators vote on President Trump’s cabinet nominees on C-SPAN, Tom noticed that a clerk reads the votes out as they come in. We considered trying speech-recognition on the audio but discovered that two people listening to the vote count could easily type them in real time and get them on our site within seconds. Our readers loved the live coverage.

Unlike in the verbal tally in the Senate, though, the House vote is displayed on four scoreboard-like panels inside the chamber. And the panels aren’t visible on C-SPAN. It was time to do some in-person research.

I learned the rules of the House chamber. We could bring laptops, and there would be internet access. But the House press gallery forbids photography; we would have to type out descriptions of any visuals we wanted to capture. We also faced another challenge: hand-entering 431 votes split among four wall-size screens. Worse, the press seats were beneath the screens, making them hard to see. Several ill-placed wall lamps added to the difficulty. And once the voting period ended, the screens turned off, and the vote tally disappeared.

On my test runs, the press area of the chamber was empty. I learned that most reporters in the Capitol spend very little time in the chamber. They know the exact path senators and representatives walk from their offices to the chamber for a vote. They stand along that path and wait to ask questions.

Tom used my on-site reports to make a Google sheet that looked similar to the panels in the House chamber, saving us precious seconds as we rushed to get the votes entered. Wilson worked to make the page easy to read even with 431 votes. Many others pitched in to help. The final dispatch had 13 bylines.

On the morning of the vote, we got to the chamber in time for some procedural votes — so we could do a practice run. I stashed a recovery banana in my backpack for after the vote. Kevin Quealy, an Upshot graphics editor and a runner, strapped on a heart monitor left over from a previous Sports-data experiment. We waited through hours of speeches and clapping, booing and heckling from the members. The press gallery filled up. We jockeyed for the best angles at the scoreboards and coordinated via the Slack messaging app. House Speaker Paul Ryan fidgeted in his seat.

And then it was time for the vote. During the five-minute voting period, Kevin’s heart rate hit almost 160 beats per minute. That’s roughly the same heart rate as when he runs marathons. Once the voting finished, reporters in the gallery hurried out to get quotes.

I sat still among the chaos and tried to remember to breathe.