When we’ll likely know the results of the 2020 election

October 27, 2020, 3:00 PM UTC

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The Nov. 3rd presidential election is the most important of our lifetimes—or at least that’s what voters have been repeatedly told by pundits, candidates, surrogates, advocates, and scholars. 

They’re likely correct in the sense that every presidential election is technically the most important election of its time. But we won’t really know the significance or implications of Biden vs. Trump for years to come, when we can put the events of 2020 into historical context. 

Here’s what we do know: This is going to be the strangest-looking election we’ve ever seen. Voting in the middle of a raging pandemic that has killed more than 225,000 Americans and infected nearly 9 million will do that. 

Americans are used to relative electoral efficiency. We like to cast our votes and get our results in a single day. Typically, we go to bed on Tuesday evening or early Wednesday with acceptance and concession speeches under our belts. There have, of course, been some famous exceptions (like in 2000 between former Vice President Al Gore and President George W. Bush), but even then, voting was standardized and looked familiar. That’s not happening this time around. 

More voters than ever before have submitted ballots by mail because of expanded efforts by states to allow those quarantining or sheltering in place to remain safe and avoid large crowds. This year, 198 million Americans who are eligible to vote will be able to cast their ballot by mail, and by the end of September, requests for those ballots surpassed 2016 levels in nearly every state.

Nine states will hold their elections primarily by mail this year, meaning every registered voter automatically receives a ballot, and 36 states will allow voters to request a ballot to vote by mail for any reason. In Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas, voters can use mail-in ballots if they have acceptable cause. 

Voters have already requested nearly 88 million mail-in ballots in reporting states, according to the University of Florida’s Michael McDonald, an election expert who is tracking numbers. Those numbers are expected to increase as more states tally their totals. In the 2016 presidential election, about 33,000,000 ballots were cast by postal vote in total. Approximately 80% percent of absentee ballots that were transmitted to voters were returned and successfully processed, so that would amount to around 41,250,000 requested ballots in total during the last presidential election.

The Bipartisan Policy Center predicts that absentee voting rates for the 2020 election will range from 50% to 70% nationwide, at least doubling and perhaps tripling what we saw in 2016. 

The increase in mail-in ballots and counting will certainly be a burden for understaffed and overworked local election offices, which received inadequate federal funding to account for new COVID-19-related voting protocols like mail-in-ballot processing, early voting, and personal protective equipment for poll workers. It will also be burdensome for the United States Postal Service, which under new postmaster general Louis DeJoy, had initially decreased mailbox availability and the use of sorting machines, leading to long delays in delivery. In August, the USPS warned 46 states and Washington, D.C., that they may not be able to deliver all ballots cast by mail on time, potentially disenfranchising some voters

Wisconsin, in response, asked the Supreme Court to allow the battleground state to count mail ballots that arrived up to six days after the election, so long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3. The court denied that request on Monday. Last week, however, the court decided that Pennsylvania, another swing state, could keep counting ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 for three days after the election ends. That means that if the race in Pennsylvania is close, results may not be in for a few days after the election. 

Each state has its own set of rules around processing and counting absentee ballots, and the vast majority of them can begin counting votes as they trickle in or at least before the election, giving them extra time to have results ready on or around Nov. 3. But three key battleground states—states that the election often hinges on—Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, are not allowed to begin counting the ballots that come in until or just before Election Day. 

In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—each of which has already received more than 1 million mail-in ballots with more expected to come—ballots cannot be processed until the morning of Nov. 3. In Michigan, some larger cities will be allowed to begin processing their ballots the day before the general election, but officials say they won’t expect any final tallies until at least Friday, Nov. 6. Trump won the state by just half a point in 2016. 

If the electoral college is close, the election could certainly be undetermined until at least Friday, Nov. 6, if not longer. Processing mail-in ballots typically takes more time than processing in-person voting: Eligibility must be verified, and in some states, signatures must match what’s on file. Some voters will have to be notified if their ballots are disqualified and given the chance to fix them. Even the act of opening each envelope and preparing the ballot for tallying takes time. In Pennsylvania, it took six days to tally vote-by-mail ballots and call the Democratic presidential primary.

Election results are never official when called on the night of the vote; they’re usually reported based on projections and certified weeks later when final tallies are in. But a lack of ballots completed could make those projections very difficult and potentially inaccurate. President Trump, for example, will likely take an early lead as Democrats are more likely to use mail-in ballots and avoid voting in person than Republicans. The President, perhaps in response to this, has repeatedly said that no votes should be processed after Election Day and has made false claims about voter fraud.  

Experts fear that these claims and a lack of results could put the election’s legitimacy into question. “In a highly polarized year like 2020, delays in results or wild swings in vote totals (as more votes get tallied) will incentivize candidates to claim misconduct on the part of election officials,” wrote Matthew Weil, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project. “Even scarier, we can imagine cases where a candidate claims a victory they have not yet earned and then calls for an end to the vote counting, well ahead of statutorily allowed deadlines.”

It’s quite likely that results of this presidential election and down ballot races will be unknown on Election Night, and early numbers that trickle in should not be taken as the final results.

We’ll likely have a good idea of who will be taking the seat in the Oval Office by the end of election week. But until then, it will be up to already overburdened local elections offices and politicians to communicate disparities effectively to the press and American people, and they’ll potentially be speaking up against the wishes and voices of the well-oiled White House press shop. An uphill battle indeed.

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