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WASHINGTON — There’s one question on everyone’s mind these days: What the hell will happen on election night?
With the coronavirus pandemic prompting mass mail-in voting, calling an official winner will likely take longer than usual. If the election is a blowout for either candidate, it’s possible a winner could be declared on Nov. 3. But because of incongruities in how absentee votes are counted in different states, it could be days or weeks before an official call is made.
The first polls will close at 6 p.m. ET on Election Day in parts of Indiana and Kentucky, and the last polls will close at 1 a.m. ET in Alaska.
If the election is close, it may initially look like President Donald Trump is winning, regardless of the final outcome. Because of the president’s relentless — and baseless — attacks on mail-in voting, it’s likely that in-person votes, which will be counted more quickly, will break for Trump, resulting in what Hawkfish, a political data firm founded by Michael Bloomberg, has called a “red mirage.” Polling has consistently shown Republican voters prefer to vote in person on Election Day by a giant margin, relative to Democrats.
Essentially, without comprehensive reporting of mail-in ballots in a close election, it might look on election night like Trump is winning big. And it’s certainly possible that he could try to claim victory before all the ballots have been counted. But once absentee ballots have been counted, former vice president Joe Biden could seriously cut into or overcome the president’s lead.
Some states, like Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina — all-important swing states to watch — have laws that allow them to begin processing mail-in ballots before Election Day itself, which could result in clear and relatively comprehensive results after the polls close on Nov. 3.
But many other states, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, are not able to begin processing absentee votes prior to Election Day, and because they don’t have robust histories with mass mail-in voting, their results could likely be delayed.
Even states with strong histories of mail-in voting, however, could take longer to get results simply due to the possibly historic numbers of ballots they’ll have to count.
One state, in particular, to watch on election night is Florida. According to Decision Desk HQ President Drew McCoy, if Biden wins Florida, it’s pretty likely he’ll win the election, as there are few paths to victory for Trump that don’t run through the Sunshine State. But as history has shown time and again, results out of Florida can take a while because of how close races there frequently have been, despite the fact that the state starts counting votes earlier than swing states in the Midwest.
If Trump wins Florida, there are several open paths to victory for the president, many of which go through states that will likely also have delays reporting full results (states like Pennsylvania, where the Supreme Court ruled this week that election officials can count mail-in ballots received up to three days after the election).
Biden winning other early-counting states on election night that Trump won in 2016, like Arizona or North Carolina, would also at least give some sense of what direction the race is going in, even if an overall winner can’t be determined that night. But those states aren’t quite as determinative as Florida. If Biden wins Texas on election night, the race is pretty much over.
McCoy also said that one thing he is reminding people as Election Day draws near is that while there may be seemingly sudden lead changes in some states as votes are tallied, it’s nothing nefarious; it happens in every election. What’s different this year is that vote counting may be extended for days or weeks, instead of compressed into a few hours after the polls close, so lead changes may just be more visible.
There could also be litigation on Election Day and in the days afterward over vote-counting, long lines to vote in person, and other issues that could delay the results even further.
Trump told reporters Sunday that it was "terrible" that the results would not be known in full on election night, adding, "We're going to go in the night of, as soon as that election's over, we're going in with our lawyers."
But vote counting has historically continued long after midnight on Election Day, and many states accept mail-in ballots received several days after the election. If he is declared the winner, Biden is reportedly prepared to deliver a victory speech Tuesday night and begin his transition to the White House, even if Trump tries to fight the results in court.
News outlets, including BuzzFeed News, have prepared for months for these possibilities and are taking a cautious approach to calling races, knowing that mass mail-in voting means knowing who has won each state could take time. So don’t necessarily expect TV networks, with their own teams of election analysts, to get out ahead of results.
There’s also the real possibility that Trump or Biden declare victory on election night well before the true result is clear. This would send us into some unprecedented territory, so we can’t really pretend to tell you what you should expect if that happens.
Which leads us to the most important — and maybe the hardest — thing of all to remember: Be patient. When the polls close on Nov. 3, voters will have already decided the election. We just have to wait it out while the process of uncovering who they’ve elected unfolds.