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All across the country, the first Tuesday (following the first Monday) in November is recognized as Election Day. During an ordinary, non-coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic year, it’s the day that most people go to the polls to cast their votes for federal officials, including—during a general election year like this one—the next president of the United States.
But as we all know, this year is far from ordinary. About 80 million votes are expected to be cast by mail, which is double the number in 2016. This is because many states eased up on absentee ballot rules to allow for easier voting for those who are concerned about contracting the virus by going to vote in person.
However, an increase in mail-in ballots means it will be harder to tally votes and conduct exit polls in real time on election night. As of right now, more than 6.6 million voters have already voted, according to the United States Elections Project, which compiles early voting data. This is more than ten times the number of voters who had voted by this time in 2016. As a result, there’s a good chance that we’ll go to bed on election night without a definitive answer as to who the next POTUS is. Since finding out the election results may take more time than we’re used to, here’s what we can expect on Election Night 2020 (so far).
How are U.S. votes usually totaled?
In the past, you probably spent election night glued to your TV, phone, or computer, watching as major media outlets raced to call a state and declare a winner in the race for president. And throughout the night, as more and more states’ votes are tallied and “called” (meaning it was determined whether or not the electors of that state were going to cast their vote for either the Democratic or Republican candidate), citizens like us get a better picture of the way the country is voting and who is in the lead in the race for the presidency. As a reminder: The United States uses the Electoral College to determine the winner of presidential elections. Under this system, each state is assigned a certain number of votes (relative to its size). There are a total of 538 election votes throughout the country, and a candidate needs 270 votes or more to win the election.
Usually, major media outlets (like the Associated Press) have been able to get an idea of how the country is voting based on exit polls, which are polls of voters taken immediately after they have exited the polling stations. When exit polls show a clear and statistically significant advantage for one candidate or the other, the networks have been able to call the state as soon as the polls close, especially given that there are certain states that are deep red (Republican) and deep blue (Democratic).
According to The Brennan Center, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, "Before calling any race, the AP relies on the tallies, on-the-ground reports, information about voter demographics, absentee and mail-in ballots, and each jurisdiction’s voting history."
But this year, fewer people turning out to the polls in person will lead to fewer exit polls. Most importantly, the mail-in ballots are going to take longer to count, meaning some states won’t be called until days, if not weeks, later. According to The Washington Post, this is what happened during this year’s Democratic primaries, when some states—including battleground states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan—faced major result delays due to policies that said election administrators could not process mail-in votes until Election Day itself.
How will mail-in ballots affect the 2020 presidential results?
According to the Brennan Center, mail-in ballots take longer to process because election officials must review the information on the return envelope and confirm voter eligibility, sort and open the envelopes, and then tabulate the paper ballots. Additionally, each state has a different set of laws and policies that affects how votes are counted. While some states count ballots received by the close of the polls on Election Day, others count mail-in ballots that were received in the days after the election so long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day itself. With just weeks until the election, many states find themselves still trying to pin down how (and when) they’ll count unprecedented numbers of mail-in ballots accurately and efficiently.
On election night, it's likely that media outlets such as Fox, CNN, ABC, NBC, and more will use whatever information they have available to make educated predictions, but keep in mind that not all districts will be fully reported at that time. In fact, an opinion piece published by members of the American Political Science Association in The Guardian insisted: "The media should do everything in their power to prepare Americans for the near certainty that it will be days or weeks before the election outcome is known." So while you can watch along if you like, there probably won't be any declaration of a winner that night.
What happens if a candidate announces his win early?
What's most important to remember is that the delay in naming a winner will most likely occur because all ballots are still being counted—which is critical for fairness and accuracy. Rushing to call the election and recognize a winner could damage the election's integrity, so if networks are not giving their traditional play-by-play coverage on election night, it is because this could be inaccurate or uninformative to viewers like us.
It will be important to stay informed but not get too worked up about potentially premature results. For example, the BBC reports that "there is a chance the early leader on election night may not win, a prospect made more likely by postal voting." Joe Biden has said he will accept the final result but has insisted: "Count every vote." President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has yet to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he not win a second term. So if any candidates begin to claim they are winning on election night, it's most likely not true.
As Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at nonprofit public policy organization the Brookings Institution, writes in an article, “Once everyone understands that we may not know the winner on election night and why, we can hope for election results that are less susceptible to conspiracy theories."
In short: If you’re hoping to stream or watch the official election results on November 3rd, you might want to make other plans.