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How Election Night 2020 Will Be Different

Covid-19 is causing a surge in voting by mail. Additional time is required to process and tabulate mail ballots, so it may take officials days or weeks to provide complete unofficial results.

Published: September 18, 2020

With at least half the votes in the Novem­ber elec­tion expec­ted to be cast by mail, Amer­ic­ans must prepare to wait for results well past Elec­tion Day. In recent years, a grow­ing number of states have allowed all voters to vote by mail, and others have expan­ded such programs to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. It may take days, if not weeks, to count an expec­ted record number of mail-in votes — some­thing many states have little exper­i­ence with. Elec­tion offi­cials, polit­ical candid­ates, members of the media, and the general public must wait for every vote to be coun­ted to ensure the fair­ness and accur­acy of the elec­tion. Instead of expect­ing results on Elec­tion Day, it may be best to prepare for an elec­tion week or even an elec­tion month.

How are votes coun­ted and repor­ted on elec­tion night?

The United States has a decent­ral­ized elec­tion system, so rules vary between states. Once polls close, poll work­ers complete a vari­ety of tasks (which may vary by state and juris­dic­tion), — such as recon­cil­ing the total number of paper ballots and compar­ing the number of total number of voters checked in to the total number of votes cast — before report­ing out unof­fi­cial results. Poll work­ers may post a paper copy of the unof­fi­cial results at the loca­tion, and then unof­fi­cial results are trans­ferred to a cent­ral loca­tion — by phone or elec­tron­ic­ally, or by trans­port­ing a memory device by car or even heli­copter. The unof­fi­cial results from indi­vidual polling sites are published online, often on local and state elec­tion offi­cial websites.

On elec­tion night, the Asso­ci­ated Press has more than 4,000 freel­ance report­ers who report to indi­vidual polling loca­tions and/or county elec­tion centers around the coun­try, which will be virtual this year. These report­ers call in vote totals to more than 800 AP vote entry clerks, who inquire about any voting irreg­u­lar­it­ies and ques­tion any results that look suspect. Qual­ity control soft­ware monit­ors any incon­sist­en­cies or results that are stat­ist­ic­ally unlikely, and research­ers and analysts verify the data. 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.

The AP sends the county voting inform­a­tion to the news networks, which also receive local, precinct-level data from elec­tion offi­cials. The AP and the five major news networks — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC — are members of the National Elec­tion Pool, a consor­tium that was formed in 2003 to provide vote counts, analysis, and projec­tions. The National Elec­tion Pool part­ners with Edison Research, a company that conducts exit polling and shares inform­a­tion such as voter demo­graph­ics and reas­ons for support­ing a partic­u­lar candid­ate. Each network also uses its own analysts, poll­sters, and stat­ist­ical models before call­ing any race.

How could this year’s elec­tion differ from past ones?

Experts are predict­ing that mail ballots could make up at least half of all votes cast elec­tion due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Multiple states have expan­ded access to mail-in voting to address fears about in-person voting during a pandemic. At least three-quar­ters of Amer­ic­ans will be eligible for a mail ballot this year — the most in history. About 80 million votes are expec­ted to be cast by mail, which is double the number in 2016.

Mail-in ballots take longer to process and count than in-person ballots. 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. Some states only count ballots received by the close of the polls on Elec­tion Day, and some states count ballots that are received in the days after the elec­tion so long as they were post­marked on or before Elec­tion Day. In general, absentee ballots cast by U.S. citizens living or trav­el­ing abroad and milit­ary members over­seas must comply with the same return rules, but some states may provide addi­tional return time to these voters under certain circum­stances.

Provi­sional ballots — which may be used if a poten­tial voter’s eligib­il­ity is ques­tioned on Elec­tion Day and in some states must be given to voters who request mail ballots but decide to vote in person instead — require addi­tional time as elec­tion offi­cials must determ­ine their eligib­il­ity. Social distan­cing require­ments for work­places may slow the process of veri­fy­ing these ballots.

Can mail ballots and early votes be coun­ted before Elec­tion Day?

All elec­tion offi­cials are prohib­ited from releas­ing elec­tion results until after the polls close. However, some elec­tion offi­cials in some states are author­ized to process and/or tabu­late certain results, such as absentee ballots or early votes, prior to Elec­tion Day. In prac­tice, this means that unof­fi­cial early voting results are published almost imme­di­ately after the close of the polls in some states, or that partial absentee voting results are released shortly after the polls close.

There may also be uneven report­ing lags between the close of the polls and the report­ing of unof­fi­cial results from indi­vidual polling loca­tions because of the size of the polling loca­tion or whether poll work­ers need extra time to complete recon­cili­ations or continue allow­ing people who were in line when the polls closed to vote. This year, some elec­tion offi­cials have asked for changes in laws that would allow them to verify and count ballots ahead of Elec­tion Day to prevent delays.


How should vote totals that are avail­able on elec­tion night be treated?

On elec­tion night, journ­al­ists, candid­ates, and their parties should account for the anti­cip­ated spike in mail-in ballots by avoid­ing univer­sal refer­ences to the “percent­age of districts report­ing” results. While some states may have inform­a­tion about the total number of mail ballots cast, others will not. For the latter group, it’s import­ant not to report results that could be mislead­ing because they don’t account for thou­sands or even millions of votes that have yet to be coun­ted because they are arriv­ing by mail.

Voters must be prepared to wait for results well past Elec­tion Day and under­stand that a delay simply means that ballots are still being coun­ted — which is crit­ical for fair­ness and accur­acy. Pres­id­ent Trump has repeatedly attacked mail-in voting and has been trying to dele­git­im­ize the elec­tion, and it is crit­ical to protect the cred­ib­il­ity of our demo­cratic process by ensur­ing each vote is coun­ted.

There could be a polit­ical divide between votes cast in person and those sent by mail. Some data shows that Demo­crats are more likely to vote by mail and to receive provi­sional ballots, while Repub­lic­ans are more likely to vote in person. Even if one candid­ate holds a comfort­able lead on Elec­tion Day, the high number of mail ballots tallied in the follow­ing days or weeks could change the outcome. Media profes­sion­als, polit­ical candid­ates, campaign teams, and polit­ical parties must not call any races prema­turely to avoid spread­ing false inform­a­tion and comprom­ising elec­tion integ­rity. A group of experts has warned that delays in tallies are expec­ted this year and recom­men­ded outreach campaigns to prepare the public for this likely scen­ario.

What should voters do?

In states that allow in-person early voting, voters should consider cast­ing a ballot before Elec­tion Day — in some places this can be days or even weeks ahead of Novem­ber 3. If voting by mail, voters should request their mail-in or absentee ballots as soon as possible and send them well ahead of Elec­tion Day to ensure they arrive on time. This can be done by mail or by drop­ping them off in a desig­nated loca­tion, which can include mail ballot drop boxes.

For inform­a­tion on the elec­tion and vote counts, voters should turn to elec­tion offi­cials and cred­ible news sources.

While Amer­ic­ans are accus­tomed to speedy unof­fi­cial elec­tion results on Elec­tion Night, experts are predict­ing a close elec­tion in many states. As always with close elec­tions, every vote counts. And as always, unof­fi­cial results on Elec­tion Night will be incom­plete for reas­ons discussed above, such as spikes in mail ballots, restric­tions on when mail ballot processing and tabu­lat­ing may begin, provi­sional ballots cast that need to be adju­dic­ated, and mail ballots that must be coun­ted in states that allow them to be mailed up to Elec­tion Day.

Offi­cials across the coun­try will work to provide complete unof­fi­cial results as soon as possible, but that may take days or weeks in some states. However, elec­tion offi­cials do expect to complete the canvass — which gener­ally includes check­ing indi­vidual polling loca­tion recon­cili­ation reports — and the formal confirm­a­tion of elec­tion results in a timely manner as they always have.

The best way to ensure elec­tion integ­rity is to count every eligible Amer­ican citizen’s vote. And this year, as with previ­ous elec­tions, the process will continue in the days follow­ing the elec­tion, and unof­fi­cial results will change as provi­sional ballots are adju­dic­ated and as offi­cials have time to process and tabu­late absentee ballots. It’s more import­ant for elec­tion offi­cials to get it right than to get it done quickly.