The big question overshadowing “Who will win the presidential election?” is: “When will we actually know who won?”
The pandemic and historic levels of mail-in voting mean that we have reason to expect that certain states will be very, very slow to count their votes this year — while others will be at least relatively quicker.
Of the six key swing states that will most likely determine the election, the general expectation is that Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona are in a good place to count most of their votes on election night or soon afterward. Of course, the closer the margin in any of these states is, the longer it will take to settle who won, and unexpected problems may arise. But these states have at least done the bare minimum to prepare for the unprecedented number of mailed ballots pouring in this year.
Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan — the trio of states that clinched Trump’s victory in 2016 — are a different story. Republican legislatures in each have almost totally refused to update antiquated policies on how mailed ballots will be processed and counted. So these states could take days to come even close to finishing their counts. And if the in-person vote is more pro-Trump than the mail vote in these states, the slow mail count could leave the impression Trump is ahead on election night, even if that’s incorrect.
The way the electoral math works, Trump almost certainly can’t win the presidency without winning at least one of those three slow-counting states. That means that, barring a catastrophic polling error flipping undreamed-of states in Trump’s favor, he is probably not going to be called the winner on election night. His path to victory goes through the slow states.
Biden, though, is on the offensive in several other states Trump won last time — states that are expected to be relatively quicker at counting. If Biden flips must-win states for Trump like Florida or North Carolina, he’s almost certain to win the presidency. The same would hold true if he scores surprising wins in some of his reach states, like Georgia, Ohio, or Texas.
Conversely, if Trump manages to hold on in those states — or if they are so close that they remain uncalled — then settle in for a long few days. This is going to take a while.
Mail-in ballots take longer to process
There are many normal, if unfortunate, reasons that vote-counting can take a while. Long lines can keep polling places open late. Technical difficulties, understaffing, or other assorted mishaps can slow reporting. And if the margin between the candidates is extremely close, even if things are mostly working fine, the winner may take some time to determine.
But in the year of Covid-19, there’s one issue that’s looming above all others: how election officials will handle an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots.
The challenge here is that mailed ballots are time-consuming to process since they must be verified against registration information to make sure the vote was properly cast.
Keep in mind what all those in-person voters at polling places are waiting in line for. You have to identify yourself, and then poll workers will check to see if you are registered, if you’re voting in the proper place, and that you haven’t voted already. If everything looks good, you can then go cast your secret ballot. (If there’s a problem, you may be able to cast a provisional ballot, and the decision of whether it will count will be made later.)
For mailed ballots, that verification process still happens, to prevent fraud — but it happens after you’ve returned your ballot, and you don’t get to see it.
Local election officials have to verify that each mail-in ballot was properly cast. Most notably, the voter’s signature must be verified — and some states have further requirements (like Pennsylvania’s secrecy envelopes) that if not properly completed can also lead ballots to be rejected. But there’s also the physical process of opening all those envelopes, sorting them based on precinct, and preparing the physical ballots for counting. Doing this for hundreds of thousands of mailed-in votes takes quite a while.
There’s a simple solution, but Republicans in some states blocked it for political reasons
Happily, there’s a simple way states can speed things up: They can start processing or even counting mailed ballots before Election Day arrives. Several states have chosen to do this, though there are a few unfortunate exceptions.
Florida, for instance, started first processing and then counting returned mailed ballots weeks ago (though the tallies won’t be publicly released until polls close on election night). Despite being known for messy, disputed elections, Florida has a history of handling lots of mail ballots and a significant in-person early vote, and the state does tend to get its count done relatively quickly. (Though the closer the count is, the longer it will take to call a winner.)
Arizona, meanwhile, started processing and counting mail ballots on October 20. Arizona also has experience with widespread mail voting, and they’ve learned to make improvements in their process. In 2018, as officials counted mail ballots slowly, the US Senate race shifted from Martha McSally leading on Election Day to Kyrsten Sinema winning a few days later. But that year, Arizona’s mail ballot processing could only begin a week before Election Day. Now, a new 2019 law has expanded that window, so processing started two weeks beforehand. It remains to be seen how it will work in practice, but it’s likely that an extra week lead time will help significantly.
In North Carolina, mailed ballots can be processed and approved ballots could be placed in machines starting in late September, and even though the actual count won’t begin until Election Day, many will be processed and ready for a quick count. (North Carolina has a particularly large amount of in-person early votes, which can also be counted speedily.)
The result will be that, in each of these states, a large “dump” of already-counted early vote totals (which can include in-person early votes, too, or be tabulated separated) will be announced relatively early on election night.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a quick call in any of these states — the margin could be close, and the in-person electorate may look quite different from the early-voting electorate. But if things go roughly as planned, it will probably mean that well over half the votes in these states get counted quickly, simply because they started earlier.
It also means that if the early vote in these states is more pro-Biden than the election day vote, the early count could give the impression that Biden is ahead — and his lead could shrink as the in-person votes are counted.
But Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin refused to take this basic, commonsense step of beginning ballot processing early. More specifically, those states’ Republican legislatures refused to change state law to allow this, despite Democrats’ pleadings. As a result, the time-consuming process of determining whether each mail-in ballot was properly cast can’t start until Election Day itself (the Michigan GOP deigned to let some areas of the state start one day early). It could take days to determine the winner in these states.
From the standpoint of good government, this is inexplicable; it can only be explained by partisan politics. President Trump has polarized the issue of mail-in voting in an unusual way, such that Republicans have told pollsters they’re more likely to vote in-person. By slowing the count of mail-in votes, Republicans in these states evidently hope the in-person votes will be counted first and show Trump ahead. Then, when those mail votes are slowly counted for Democrats, Trump can baselessly disparage their gains as illegitimate and based on fraud.
Still, this doesn’t have to be a partisan issue — Republican officials in Florida and Arizona have more experience with mail-in balloting and agreed on commonsense provisions for the speedy processing of mailed ballots. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are really the odd exceptions here.
On election night, keep in mind mailed votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan expected to favor Democrats will be counted more slowly — and that’s by design.
The mail tail
There’s another hitch with mail voting: Some states will eventually count votes that haven’t even arrived on election night because they’re still in the mail.
No state will count mail votes that are postmarked after Election Day (some require the postmark to be the day before). And many states have a hard deadline of counting only mailed ballots that arrive on or before Election Day. These include Florida, Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin (the Supreme Court just upheld Wisconsin’s deadline Monday).
But some states are a bit more generous to procrastinators, so long as their ballot is postmarked by Election Day or before. For instance, Pennsylvania currently plans to count ballots arriving up to three days after Election Day (though the US Supreme Court could change that). North Carolina will count ballots arriving up to nine days after. And Ohio will count ballots received up to 10 days after the election, though they must be postmarked the day before the election or earlier. (Some states also have different deadlines for overseas and military voters.)
In states like these, then, there will be a “tail” of late-arriving mail votes that will trickle in gradually in the days after the election.
The fact that North Carolina accepts ballots coming in nine days after the election doesn’t mean that we won’t know North Carolina results until then. Remember, the ballots must be postmarked on Election Day or before. So the bulk of the outstanding vote will likely come in a few days after the election, with fewer and fewer stragglers as the days pass. After those first few days, the remaining ballots trickling in would only be relevant in an extraordinarily close election.
Starting ballot processing early is a no-brainer, but the decision on when to set the deadline for mailed ballots involves a trade-off between two goals. A strict Election Day deadline helps speed up the count, but a more lenient deadline helps more votes be counted. And here again, President Trump has tried to disingenuously portray late-arriving mail votes as fraudulent.
The big picture for election night
Finally, there are also other, more ordinary reasons votes could be slow to count. Urban areas often take longer to complete their tallies than suburban or rural ones. Provisional ballots (ballots cast when there’s a problem with the voter’s information, which may or may not later be counted) take some time to sort out since some states give voters a chance to correct problems with their information.
Non-swing states like California, New York, and Washington have histories of counting slowly, which explained most of why the 2016 popular vote moved from a tie on election night to a 2.1 percentage point Hillary Clinton advantage by December. (California, however, has added three extra weeks of ballot processing time this year.)
But when it comes to the Electoral College, the big picture is that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin appear the least likely to produce speedy results on election night.
The other swing states generally seem better prepared, but it’s hard to tell in advance how their plans will work out in practice, and any of them could have a close enough margin that a call would take some time anyway. (For instance, in 2018, Florida’s Senate and governor races were both decided by less than half a percentage point. It took more than two weeks and three recounts before both races were decided.)
Still, if enough states have their acts together on vote-counting, Biden does have plausible paths to victory on election night without needing to rely on the slow counts from Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin.
For instance, Biden currently narrowly leads in the FiveThirtyEight polling averages for Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, and Georgia. Winning Florida alone, plus the solidly blue states, would put Biden quite close to the magic number of 270 electoral votes.
Polls also show Trump up only narrowly in Texas and Ohio, two other electoral vote-rich prizes that, if called for Biden on election night, could signal a Biden landslide. (Texas has little mail voting but a great deal of in-person early voting, which is quick to count. Ohio allows counties to start processing ballots early, but does have that 10-day tail for late-arriving mailed ballots, though they must be postmarked the day before election day.)
Trump, meanwhile, would have a very hard time cobbling together 270 electoral votes on election night if we assume that Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania won’t be called yet. Here’s a map that gives Trump all the other states he won in 2016, including those where he’s currently trailing in polls. He’s still a bit short.
So to get an election night victory, Trump would have to flip at least two states where polls show him behind quite a bit — perhaps Nevada and Minnesota, or Nevada and New Hampshire.
Overall, it is entirely possible that enough states will count enough votes to signal a clear Biden victory on election night. But things might also be closer and slower and take longer to call. It is 2020, after all.
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