“We can’t predict the future, but we can know the present,” the writer Michael Crichton once said. However, as the last voters cast their ballots for the general election, present and future are poised to merge into a single, timeless moment of anticipation and uncertainty.
No matter how eager, if not desperate, every side might be to declare victory, it’s not likely that election night will bring them relief. “We have not had final election results on election night in recent history, and we’re not going to have final election results on election night in 2020,” says Elizabeth Howard, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Howard, an election law specialist, spearheaded efforts to modernize election administration as deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Elections and served as general counsel for Rock the Vote. She is a co-author of a new report from the center, The Roadmap to an Official Count in an Unprecedented Election, which provides details of the many administrative steps involved in counting votes.
Voters should find comfort in the layers of procedure undertaken by election officials to ensure that they report out accurate results, she says. If it takes a while, “It’s not indicative of a problem, it’s indicative of election officials taking the time to do their jobs.”
A Twitter ad reminds voters that counting will take time. (Twitter)
Election officials have been working for months to help voters understand this, and no state is required to certify its election results on Nov. 3. Deadlines for some of the potential battleground states extend until late in the month, or even early December.
Even so, citizens who have endured months of pandemic restrictions and deferred pleasures may grow impatient if inflamed by news accounts, social media, harassment at the polls or armed vigilantes. It’s vital for them to understand why counting takes time, and that differing procedures from state to state mean that some might be slower than others. Here's what to watch out for:
Elizabeth Howard of the Brennan Center is one of the authors of The Roadmap to an Official Count in an Unprecedented Election. (Brennan Center for Justice)
1. A Cornucopia of Disruption
Every one of the usual challenges of election administration, as well as new ones that have made the work of election officials more difficult than ever, is being addressed in the context of an uncontrolled public health crisis, a recession and what may be the largest protest movement in the country’s history. These problems are flanked by ongoing attacks on the integrity of the election system itself from both public officials and foreign actors, including accusations that both sides plan to cheat.
There are countless ways that these factors could slow things down, from an unexpected need for an election worker to care for a loved one (or themselves) to dealing with vandalized ballot boxes or civil disturbances.
The Brennan Center had estimated that local and state election officials would need $4 billion in federal support to navigate the challenges of an election during a pandemic, but Congress only managed a tenth of that. “They basically failed our election officials,” says Howard. “These costs aren't going away, they're just spread out.”
Early voting as of Nov. 1, 2020. (Source: U.S. Elections Project)
2. Sheer Volume of Ballots
By Sunday, Nov. 1, Americans had already cast 93 million ballots, twice as many as the pre-election total for 2016. Michael McDonald of the U.S. Elections Project told NPR that these totals had “passed any raw number of early votes in any prior election in U.S. history.”
McDonald now sees his earlier prediction that 150 million people would vote this year, the biggest turnout rate since 1908, as a “lowball estimate.” Almost 60 million of the early votes are mail-in ballots. If the more than 30 million mail-in ballots that are outstanding arrive, the total would be nearly three times the 33 million cast in 2016.
3. Extended Periods for Ballot Acceptance
Some states allow mail-in ballots that are sent or postmarked by Election Day to be counted. These include several battleground states: Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
A vote with an on-time postmark can arrive as late as Nov. 13 and still be counted in Ohio. Given the delays recently discovered in USPS delivery of completed ballots, there could be a larger number of ballots than usual arriving up until the cutoff date.
4. Inadequate Time to Process Mail Ballots Before Election Day
A ballot that arrives by mail or is placed in a drop box is carefully verified before it is allowed to be counted, and these processes underlie the FBI’s assertion that mail-in voting fraud is virtually impossible. Exactly what is done varies by state, but these steps include verifying the ID of the voter, the fact that they are registered to vote and checking to ensure that the ballot signature matches the one that the state has on file.
The amount of time election officials are given to accomplish this exacting process varies. Election officials in three swing states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — faced pushback this year against their efforts to get a head start, says Howard. “You saw bipartisan groups of election officials pleading for relief, asking for the ability to pre-process ballots.”
Republican-controlled legislatures rebuffed these requests, however. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin won’t be able to start processing ballots until Election Day; Michigan was allowed to start 10 hours early. All of this work will have to be completed before counting the ballots begins.
By comparison, Florida election officials have been processing mail-in ballots as soon as they are received.
5. More Provisional Ballots
Provisional ballots are given to voters if it is not certain that they are qualified to vote, and are generally not counted at all on Election Day. The surge in demand for mail-in ballots has created extra work in states that require ballots from voters who requested to vote by mail to be considered “provisional” if the voter later decides to vote in person. Pandemic-related interference with opportunities to register to vote, or to update registration, is also leading to more provisional ballots.
6. More Ballots to "Cure"
More mail-in ballots, including those from voters who might be new to this process, means more mistakes, details such as missing or mismatched signatures that need to be corrected or “cured” before a ballot can be counted. NPR estimated that as many as half a million ballots were rejected in 2016, and nearly twice as many mail-in ballots have already been received by election offices. Battleground states allow anywhere from two to nine days after Nov. 3 for ballots to be cured.
A tight margin of victory in a key state could trigger a recount. The Economist ran 100,000 simulations and estimated that the chances of this happening will double due to the increase in voting by mail. The timeline for a recount varies from state to state.
Since January, 230 lawsuits have been filed related to the federal election. These have set the scene for new legal challenges if there is a close or controversial race in a state that could change the outcome of the election. It has been reported that the president intends to send in lawyers to swing states such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina when election day is over, considering it "unfair" that results may not be available on election night.
A Call for Patience
Election officials will work for weeks after the polls close to verify and count every eligible vote, and the results of this work will be the official outcome of the election, attained, as always, within a timeframe that is independent of news cycles.
“The focus of our boards is accuracy, not speed,” says Maggie Sheehan, press secretary for Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose.
Election officials are ready, New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said in a joint statement with the National Association of State Election Directors. “We want voters to have confidence in the process, go vote if they have not already voted by mail or early in-person, and have patience as election officials tally, canvass and certify election results"
This year, just like in the past, don't expect to have final election results on election night, says Howard. “That’s indicative that the system is working and that election officials are completing large numbers of steps to ensure that they put out accurate results.”