It’s a familiar election night routine for many: you flip on the TV after dinner; the polls start closing and returns begin to flood in. In presidential years, the 50 states turn red or blue, starting with the eastern seaboard, then the Midwest, then the Mountain West and finally the West Coast. By the time you go to bed, you often know who the next U.S. president will be.
That tradition may feel different this year: an emphasis on voting by mail in order to cut down on traffic at polling places amid the coronavirus pandemic means it could take longer to count votes, experts say. Or it might not.
Here’s a look at what you might find when you look for election results on Nov. 3 and the days that follow.
Potential for delays
In many places, the release of election night returns won’t feel much different than in years past, said Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the New Mexico Secretary of State and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
That includes places where there isn’t as much vote-by-mail, states that have lots of early in-person voting relative to the number of mailed ballots coming in, and places — like her state — where there are procedures in place to allow ballots to be processed and counted quickly “so they can go up in fairly good time on election night,” she said.
But it won’t feel the same everywhere. “In those battleground states where the presidential race is likely to be super close, it’s likely we will not be able to see the outcome of the presidential race when we go to bed on election night,” Toulouse Oliver said.
Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are all planning on vote-by-mail surges and aren’t allowed to start processing mail ballots until election day, according to a review of election rules by Politico, which means it could be a while before those races are called.
It might be a bit of a wait if it’s close in Florida (as polls suggest it might be), too, said Susan MacManus, University of South Florida distinguished professor emeritus. Florida’s mail-in ballots must match the signature on file, and if Florida receives an onslaught of mail ballots on election day and needs to match signatures, that could slow down the reporting of those results. Among other possible delays, Florida has an automatic recount trigger if the result is within 0.5 percentage points.
“If any race, whether it’s dog catcher, is within half a percentage point, it goes to an automatic recount by machine, and then if after that it’s just a quarter of a point difference it goes to hand counts,” MacManus said.
In Minnesota, coronavirus-driven changes to election law mean local election officials will have an extra week — two weeks before the election — to open and process ballots, though they won’t actually be counted until polls close. By-mail ballots postmarked on or before Election Day can arrive at elections offices up to seven days after the election and still be counted. (Some other states also have grace periods, varying in length, for ballots.)
Still, the returns that are in by the end of Election Day in Minnesota will be reported, with updates as more ballots are counted.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon has said Minnesotans will likely know the outcomes of most races on election night or shortly after.
In the state primary, held in August and in which mailed ballots had a two-day grace period, most races were called on election night.
Delays don’t mean doom
Recent presidential elections have been called by midnight or not too long after.
In 2016, when President Donald Trump was declared the winner, he beat Hillary Clinton by 77 electoral college votes, and lost the national popular vote by 2.1 percentage points. The AP called that race at 1:29 a.m. Central Time the day after Election Day.
But you don’t have to look very far back to find a race where the outcome took a bit longer to call.
“That does not just apply to the 2000 scenario, which is the one that people think about quite often,” said Julie Pace, Associated Press Washington bureau chief, referring to the George W. Bush versus Al Gore race, which was decided by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on December 12. “In 2004, Ohio was still outstanding on election night and that was the state that was really in the balance, and it wasn’t until the next day that Ohio was able to be called.”
How fast the races are called comes down to a combination of how fast a state counts and reports results, and how close the margin is in the votes that are counted versus how much of the vote is left to be counted, Pace said.
If the race is very tight, the race may not be called when there are enough outstanding votes to change the outcome.
It’s a normal part of the process for counting ballots to take a while, Toulouse Oliver said.
“The challenge is that most people, when they do go to bed on election night, assume that that’s it, the election is over, somebody’s won, somebody’s lost,” she said.
They don’t think about all the state and local election officials around the country working for days, weeks and even months to get vote totals finalized, Toulouse Oliver said.
She called the processes by which those officials work “vastly transparent.”
“So those processes are not happening without public eyes on them, and obviously the way it works is going to differ from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but by and large, political parties, candidates, interest groups like Common Cause and the ACLU will have volunteers and in particular volunteer attorneys who will be observing the process and making sure the rules are followed,” she said.
A changing lead doesn’t mean fraud
This year, President Donald Trump has been sowing distrust in the vote-by-mail system, and some Democrats are concerned he will declare victory if he’s ahead in early returns on election night, even before enough votes are in to call the races.
Democrats have pushed vote-by-mail this year and polls suggest Democrats are more likely to cast their votes by mail than Republicans, so it’s possible early returns favor Trump while later ones favor Joe Biden.
Early numbers can be misleading. With 20 percent of the vote in, it can look like a candidate has a huge lead, when in fact, those votes may come from an area where they have strong support. When the other 80 percent of votes come in, the breakdown of votes may change vastly.
“Be patient,” Pace said. “Really make sure that when you’re consuming information about vote tallies that you’re asking some questions. How much vote is in? Where is that vote in? What candidate is strongest in that area? Is it in-person voting that has been counted or is it mail-in voting that’s been counted?”