Election Day may be here at last, but election night will likely look different than it has in previous years. That’s because, due to record-shattering levels of early and absentee voting, the vote tabulation process will likely take longer in most states.
On the one hand, that’s a good thing! As of Sunday, over 93 million Americans had already cast their vote, which is more than two-thirds the entire voter turnout in the 2016 election. And in the states of Texas and Hawaii, voter turnout has already exceeded 2016 levels, with two days to go. Voting options like mail-in ballots, drive-thru voting booths, and in-person early voting at converted NBA arenas have contributed to the increase in voter participation. Not to mention one of the most consequential presidential elections of all time.
Still, the hodgepodge of voting options, and the voting law variations between counties and states, means that counting every last ballot could be a slow process. So here’s what to expect on election night and thereafter.
Pre-Processing in the Sun Belt
Certain states that are used to high levels of absentee voting have systems already in place to tabulate the vote by election night. Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona, in particular, are the likeliest of swing states to report election results by Tuesday night. That’s because election officials in these states are permitted to “pre-process” ballots prior to Election Day, which entails taking mail-in ballots out of their envelopes, flattening them so they’re ready for the scanner, and checking signatures to ensure every ballot is kosher. And in Florida, officials have already started to tabulate write-in ballots, which they are allowed to open upon receipt.
All of this is to say that the so-called Sun Belt swing states could yield results in the presidential race by election night. Of course, if the results are very tight, the image becomes foggier. Remember, in 2000, Florida election results in the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore were so close, that it took weeks of attempted recounting and a notorious Supreme Court decision to finally hand the election to Bush.
Of course, if there is a clear winner in these states, the national result could become pretty clear on election night. If Joe Biden wins one or all of these four states, his path to victory only improves. But if Trump loses even one of these states—Florida in particular—his path to re-election becomes incredibly narrow. If Trump loses Florida on election night, he will have to carry every single other state that he won in 2016 in order to win the election.
Cold and Slow in the Midwest
Meanwhile, in the Upper Midwest, as well as in fickle Pennsylvania, counting efforts are likely to last days. One bright spot is Wisconsin, where the governor predicts a result by election night. But in Michigan and in PA, officials are forbidden from even opening absentee ballots until the end of day on November 3rd. That means the process of tabulating the huge influx of absentee ballots could last until the end of the week.
Four years ago, these three states were integral to Trump’s Election Day upset over Hillary Clinton, who had wrongly believed the Midwest was a “blue wall.” But Joe Biden seems to be up in the polls in Michigan and in Wisconsin. (For the record, so was Hillary Clinton four years ago.) Nonetheless, both presidential campaigns have focused on Pennsylvania, where both Trump and Biden spent time on Monday, vying for the state’s precious 20 electoral votes. Biden in particular, who was born in Scranton, PA, believes that if he can win that state, he will win the entire contest.
“We’re going in with our lawyers.”
Trump, meanwhile, has already threatened to mount a legal challenge in Pennsylvania to hobble the counting of mail-in ballots, which are widely believed to favor Democrats. “We’re going to go in the night of, as soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” he told reporters on Sunday. He was likely referring to the question of how long after Election Day Pennsylvania officials are allowed to count mail-in ballots.
Just last week, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear a Republican-led dispute that demanded any mail-in ballot that arrives after 8 PM on Election Day be thrown away – even if it is postmarked on time. As a result, officials in Pennsylvania are tentatively allowed to count mail-in ballots that arrive up to three days following Election Day, if they are postmarked by the deadline. However, the Supreme Court did say it would consider new challenges to this grace period following Election Day, which sounds like an invitation to Trump’s lawyers.
Still, despite Trump’s demands to know the results on election night, states are not required to reveal their final results on November 3rd. After all, for most of the country’s history, states could not rely on scanners, computers, and other fast-counting technologies (not to mention a non-stop national press corps). That means that knowing the winner of an election on the night-of is a relatively new phenomenon.
On Sunday, Josh Shapiro, the Democratic Attorney General for Pennsylvania, barked back at Trump’s threats to use the judicial system to undermine Pennsylvania vote-counting efforts.
“FACT CHECK” Shapiro tweeted. “Our elections are over when all the votes are counted.” Not when the clock strikes 8 on election night.