In most recent presidential elections, voters could gather round a TV on election night and wait for news anchors to announce who won each state until the next president was declared – usually before midnight.
But as is the case with almost everything this year, election night may not be anything like that.
With at least three-quarters of Americans eligible to vote-by-mail, voters should be prepared for a long counting process that could last through much of November, perhaps even through Thanksgiving, if the results are particularly close.
Roughly 80 million Americans will cast their vote by mail this election, more than double of that in 2016. Some states, like Washington, are ready. Others will experience much more absentee voting than normal.
With anticipated record turnout, new COVID-19 restrictions and talks of delays in the U.S. Postal Service, national results for presidency and the control of the Senate might take longer than previous years.
“There are 50 varieties on how states are going to deal with voting,” said Priscilla Southwell, a University of Oregon political scientist who has studied vote-by-mail.
How races are called
Across the country, news organizations and independent exit poll groups race on election day to get accurate results early, so local and national news sites can declare winners.
The Associated Press uses thousands of reporters, vote-count stringers and vote-entry clerks to determine who won in a given election. Stringers head to county election centers to get raw votes after polls close. They phone them in to a vote-entry clerk who puts the data into the AP’s system that tabulates votes. AP also relies on on-the-ground reporting, demographics and voting history to call a race.
The AP’s decisions are widely used by other news organizations across the country.
The Decision Desk, the AP division responsible for declaring winners, always paid attention to mail-in votes, including when election officials start counting early and mail-in votes and if they are being counted separately or alongside in-person ballots, according to the AP. This year, they will just have to do that in more states .
The National Election Pool, a group of national news outlets, and Edison Research also conduct national exit polls to call races on election night.
They conduct in-person interviews at early voting locations and on election day with voters leaving polling places. They also complete telephone polls of early and absentee voters, something they will likely do a lot more of this election. News outlets then use polling data along with their own analysis to call a winner.
If the presidential race is especially close, neither AP nor members of the National Election Pool may feel comfortable calling it on election night, as counting mail-in ballots might be essential to finding the winner.
Complications in key states for determining presidency
Many states have scrambled to come up with a pandemic-safe voting plan.
Of the swing states this election, most changed their rules for absentee voting – voting by mail – to some degree. Iowa and Wisconsin, for example, will be sending absentee applications to all voters. In Nevada, every voter will receive a ballot in the mail. In New Hampshire, voters can cite COVID-19 as a reason to vote absentee.
Other states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Texas, did not change their absentee voting rules, but with anticipated record turnout, they could still see higher number of mail-in ballots than they’re used to.
The accuracy of results on election night depends on state or local laws on when a ballot can be opened, Southwell said.
In some states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, elections officials aren’t allowed to open mail-in ballots until Election Day. In states where mail-in ballots can be counted early, there could still be delays, if there are more mail-in ballots than usual or the majority of ballots don’t arrive until after Election Day.
“All of that adds up to the potential of not knowing the results of the presidential race on election night,” Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Julie Pace said in a video preparing viewers for this election.
That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong or fraudulent this election, Pace said. It just could mean it’s taking longer to tabulate results.
Many states are dealing with this influx of mailed ballots for the first time.
“It’s going to be a tough optic to overcome, just the sheer number of ballots that these states are going to have,” Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman said.
Other states have always had high absentee voting turnout, Southwell said, so they likely know how to handle it.
In the 2016 election, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas were among states that had more than 50% of votes cast by mail or cast in-person at polls before Election Day.
What this could mean for results
Because each state will be dealing with new circumstances, it’s difficult to determine when each might have most of their results. However, looking at how long it took swing states to release final results during the primary might help.
Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas had their results within 24 hours of polls closing, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. All those states, however, had primaries before the pandemic forced changes at polling centers.
It took Georgia almost 10 days and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin about six days to release final results. All three of these states had primaries after March 17.
Other states like Ohio, however, had primaries after mid-March but were able to release final results within 10 hours of polls closing. In Ohio, allowing anyone to request an absentee ballot without an excuse is not new.
Any delays in these states’ results could put the country in a waiting period.
If the presidential race is particularly close in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Georgia, for example, it may take up to a week to declare winners in those states. If the outcome of the election hinges on Minnesota or North Carolina, which has less experience with voting by mail, finding out the winner could take longer.
Southwell said she has no idea how close the presidential election will be, but there probably will be a good indication on election night of who won.
Voters are learning to turn ballots in early, she said, and most states had a trial run in the primary.
“I’m a little more optimistic that things aren’t going to be up in the air,” Southwell said.
However, Southwell added she did not think the control of the Senate would be known on election night because of multiple races expected to be extremely close.
Wyman said elections officials’ focus is to count ballots accurately, something she said is labor-intensive and takes time.
“It’s important that every vote counts, is cast legally and counted accurately,” she said.
Even if the result is known on Election Day, President Donald Trump has said he might not accept it if he loses. Leaders in both political parties vowed to ensure the winner of the election is inaugurated in January.
Washington is more prepared than others
Although Washington is used to vote-by-mail, elections officials have warned for months of late results, urging voters to get their ballots in early.
In the primary, counties saw record high turnout with ballots mostly coming on Election Day or later. This behavior worried county auditors, who have had to cut the number of staff processing ballots due to COVID-19 procedures.
“If we have that same kind of procrastination or delay, then that means the numbers on election night are going to contain a very small percentage of ballots that will ultimately be counted,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said.
Dalton has urged voters in Spokane to get their ballots in early to avoid delays, but she knows there always will be voters who will wait until the last moment.
In an attempt to urge voters to turn ballots in early, many Washington counties have mailed ballots one week earlier this year. The decision came out of a meeting with county auditors and Wyman in which auditors discussed worries surrounding postal service delays.
Results in Washington are not certified until 21 days after the election.
“We don’t cut corners in elections,” Thurston County Auditor Mary Hall said.
Regardless of the outcome, this election likely will have effects on all future elections. Southwell predicts there will be a push from voters in all states to switch to vote-by-mail.
Many election officials are doing this reluctantly this year, she said, but vote-by-mail will become increasingly popular.
“What we’re going to find is there won’t be as many problems as anticipated and voters are going to like it,” Southwell said.
Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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