This has been, among many things, a year of readjusting expectations. For decades in the United States, Americans have gotten used to finding out the results of the presidential election relatively soon after polls closed on Election Day (which is November 3rd this year, ICYMI). However, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 is shaping up to be a bit different.
This election cycle, voting patterns have drastically changed as constituents try to avoid crowded polling places and stay socially distant. According to the New York Times, “at least three-quarters of all American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the 2020 election—the most in U.S. history,” and a predicted “roughly 80 million mail ballots will flood election offices this fall, more than double the number that were returned in 2016.” These mail-in ballots take longer to process, and you don't have to look far to see how this could affect the election: This year, primaries in some states took days, if not weeks, to announce a winner.
So when exactly can we expect the results of the presidential election to be announced—and what should we consider when figuring out a timeline? Below, ELLE.com talked with Jennifer Morrell, a former election official, partner at The Elections Group, and a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises, to find out.
Some states will be processing an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots.
"It's important for everybody to understand that full election results, meaning official election results, have never been available on election night," Morrell said. "There's always been a time period that takes place, and that varies state to state, where election officials have to certify their election, meaning ensure all ballots are counted, everything's been checked and balanced, and then present it for certification."
However, Morrell explained, in states where voting traditionally took place on Election Day, there'd be a small number of absentee voters, meaning that while those absentee ballots were counted, they didn't have a huge bearing on the final results, and outlets were able to report the outcome of the election pretty quickly.
Alternatively, in states that have already transitioned to a majority of mail-in votes, jurisdictions have invested in the appropriate technology, changed their laws, and adapted procedures so that they, too, are able to have most results reported on election night.
Then COVID-19 happened, and as voters needed a way to vote safely and account for a lack of polling locations and poll workers, there was an unprecedented shift to early voting, and more specifically, voting by mail. "We have states and jurisdictions who have never handled this volume of mail ballots before," Morrell said.
"You're still going to see pretty prompt results in the states that have have a history of voting by mail," she added. "It's just slow for states that are new to this and haven't had that opportunity to change laws or policies or procedures to help them provide more efficient results reporting or more efficient processing." Mail ballots go through several steps before they can be counted, including being reviewed by election officials, per the Washington Post.
Some jurisdictions have received private grants and funding that have allowed them to buy the equipment they need, according to Morrell, and some are hiring temporary workers to help speed up the process. But COVID-19 will also come into play behind-the-scenes: "All of the things that you do prior to the election, during the election, after the election, whether it's the way poll workers issue a voter a ballot, to how those ballots are scanned, to how voting equipment's placed, to how in the back office you're processing mail ballots—now we all have to social distance. That's going to slow things down as well."
Some state can’t process ballots before Election Day.
While some states are legally allowed to process and/or count mail ballots before Election Day, therefore speeding up timelines, others—including some battleground states—are not, even with the increase in mail ballots. According to Morrell, these "antiquated" laws "haven't kept pace with this [new] volume."
For example, in Florida, the state can begin counting mail ballots prior to November 3rd, "which means voters can expect to see more advanced results on election night, if everything goes according to plan," according to the Post. Alternatively, in Pennsylvania, a swing state, mail ballots can't be counted until Election Day, and getting the results could take days.
Ballots will continue to come in, and be counted, after Election Day.
While it's unclear just how many people will turn in their mail ballots early, nearly half of all states are accepting ballots that arrive during a window after Election Day, as long as they're postmarked by November 3rd or an earlier deadline, per the Post. In addition, the outlet reports, "Roughly 30 states allow voters to fix errors that would otherwise lead to their ballots being rejected; in states where this is permitted after Election Day, it could draw out the time before final results are announced."
There's also the issue of provisional ballots, which act as a safety valve on Election Day so voters can cast a ballot even if their eligibility is uncertain. "It protects both the voter, and it protects the integrity of the election," Morrell explained. However, provisional ballots get processed last and take longer since there's research involved to determine whether the vote can be counted. "In a lot of elections, we may see a small percentage of provisionals, single digits. This election could be different. It's hard to know how voters are going to behave."
So, how long will we be waiting?
“The good news is I don't think we will be waiting months,” Morrell said. “It could be a week or longer.” Jurisdictions that can prepare ballots ahead of time will be able to report faster and a surge in early voting could also mean quicker results. Even states with laws like Pennsylvania's will still have some results ready on election night. "I'm still super optimistic that it's not going to be as bad as we think, unless there's some real breakdown or challenge," Morrell said.
But what should you be watching out for on election night to get a better sense of timing? "We'll be watching to see those numbers," she said. "How many people turned out? How many voters were given credit for voting? We'll be looking to see, of those voters that cast a ballot, how many voted in person, how many voted by mail? How many of those mail ballots have already been counted or were counted in those results that were released on election night?"
How to stay informed on election night:
Though we'll probably all be glued to our Twitter feeds and our preferred cable news network, Morrell said the #1 thing you can do while waiting for results is turn to your state or local election official's website. "If they have a social media account, follow it. Honestly, that's the only place I would go to for trusted information."
She also acknowledged that outlets will be watching those trusted sources and will most likely be cautious about making snap judgements about the winner. (As a reminder, President Trump has previously said he wouldn't accept the election results if he loses.) Early returns could be skewed as in-person votes are counted first and we wait for mail-in ballots, so it's imperative to be patient until the official results are called—whenever that may be.
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