After saying goodbye to a couple dozen Democratic candidates (at least, it felt like that many), enduring countless Donald Trump Twitter meltdowns, and somehow surviving two Trump-Biden debates later, we’ve finally made it to Election Day. As this year has seen nationwide anti-racism protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising poverty and unemployment rates in America, very few elections — if any — have felt as important as this one.
In response, Americans are voting like never before. As of Sunday, a majority of states reported record early voting numbers; Texas has already officially surpassed its total turnout from 2016. But since many states are also seeing record numbers of mail-in ballots, it could take awhile for the final results to roll in. So, it's no wonder that everyone is asking: When, exactly, will we know the election results?
Though it is possible that we will have the results on Tuesday night, experts are warning Americans to prepare for an Election Week (or possibly even an Election Month) instead of an Election Day. But this actually isn’t uncommon: In the last presidential election, for instance, it took officials in Michigan over two weeks to call Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. And technically, even when results are called the night of Election Day, those are just projections.
“From a legal perspective, there are no results on Election Night, and there never have been,” election law professor Edward B. Foley told The Atlantic. “The only thing that has ever existed on Election Night are projected results that the media has helpfully provided to its audiences.”
Historically, absentee ballots have also slowed down election results. In 2012, Barack Obama was already reelected before election officials announced that he had officially beat out Mitt Romney in Florida by just 74,000 votes. Not coincidentally, several key counties in the state reported unusually high numbers of absentee ballots that year: About 28% of Florida’s voters sent in their ballots by mail.
However, there is some reason to think that states like Florida might be called sooner this year. The majority of the U.S. allows officials to begin sorting and counting mail-in ballots prior to Election Day, which should speed up the process, as people have been mailing in their ballots for many weeks now. That said, there are four states that will only begin processing mail-in ballots today, and some counties in one of these states — Pennsylvania, a critical battleground state — won’t even begin counting ballots until tomorrow. Officials in Pennsylvania and Michigan — also a key swing state — have both warned that results could take days to report, according to the New York Times.
Delayed mail-in ballots could also affect when we get results. Washington, D.C. and 22 states — which, in total, comprise 59% of the Electoral College — will count all mail-in ballots postmarked before or on November 3, even those that don’t arrive until after Election Day. Despite the Republican Party’s incessant efforts to squash it, Pennsylvania’s election board implemented a three-day extension, promising to count all mail-in ballots that arrive on or before November 6. However, if the race is tight and Pennsylvania’s results have a narrow enough margin, the Supreme Court might revisit or challenge the extension; in preparation, the election board agreed to separate the mail-in votes they receive after the polls close on November 3.
Trump's threat to fight against the outcome if Biden wins in Pennsylvania could also complicate matters. The president logged onto Twitter to express his frustration with both the state’s extension and the possible delay. “The Election should end on November 3rd., not weeks later!” he tweeted over the weekend. Before that, he wrote, “A 3 day extension for Pennsylvania is a disaster for our Nation, and for Pennsylvania itself. The Democrats are trying to steal this Election.”
Trump is likely afraid of what Foley dubbed “the blue shift” — essentially, an explanation as to why Democratic votes are often counted later. Foley noted a pattern that’s taken hold since 2004: Almost every election, officials have counted large swaths of Democratic votes after Election Day. He connected this trend to the Help America Vote Act, which was signed into law in 2002 and allows voters to cast provisional ballots if they believe they are eligible but don’t appear on the register. By nature, provisional ballots are not counted until they are verified by officials days after the election.
Voters who cast them also predominantly belong to demographics that typically vote Democrat. “It is not unreasonable to expect Trump’s Democratic opponent in 2020 to gain on Trump by over 20,000 votes in Pennsylvania during the period between Election Night and the final, official certification of the canvass,” Foley predicted in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic complicated matters even further.
Now, it’s likely that mail-in votes, not just provisional ones, will cause this shift. According to an NBCLX/YouGov poll, 65% of Democrats voted by mail this year, compared to 49% of Independents and just 35% of Republicans. This makes sense, since, you know, Trump has tried to convince his voters that mail-in voting increases the risk of fraud and that mailmen are “selling the ballots” and dumping them in rivers. Checks out, right? (All of these claims have been disproven.)
But even with provisional ballots and mail-in votes — and Republican attempts to suppress the latter — slowing down the process, there’s still a lot we’ll know by the end of the day. For example, North Carolina’s Board of Elections predicts that 80% of votes will be released as early as 7:30 p.m. Governor Tony Evers also said that Wisconsin’s results will be in by Election Night or, at the latest, the next morning. And although states like Pennsylvania and Arizona might not have results until next week, there’s a good reason: Officials are just ensuring every vote is counted and every voice is heard, even if it takes a little longer than usual.