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What to Expect on Election Night or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Board

After four grueling years of chaos, we are nearly there – the beginning of the end. As journalists everywhere have tried to prepare people for NOT knowing who won on election night, the president has insisted the winner must be declared Tuesday night and even said that judges need to stop states from counting past election night. The latter is blatantly illegal and almost nothing has been discussed about it because the bar for this president’s criminality is so incredibly low.

Aside from the strictly illegal nature of the president’s comment, the problem is that states NEVER certify their results on election night. Media outlets predict how states will certify their votes. President Trump does not understand the difference. With the increased number of mailed ballots and early voting prompted by the pandemic, an unprecedented number of people will have voted before election day. Some states count these votes early. Some states do not count them until after election day.

If you want to skip to the conclusion, there are too many factors at play to know if we can declare a winner on election night. But I think it’s more likely than not. The prevailing wisdom that mail-in ballots will cause a lag doesn’t hold up when you look at the states in question.

Everything here is sourced either from my personal knowledge or two New York Times articles: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/13/us/politics/when-votes-counted.html and https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/27/upshot/election-results-timing.html

I’m going to look at 538 and what they say are the 9 closest races. These are the ones to watch on Tuesday: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania. Combined, these states are worth a whopping 153 electoral votes.

Arizona started counting their early ballots on Oct. 7. We should have a good idea who wins on election night.

Florida, despite the reputation from the 2000 election, counts their early ballots as received. Unless Florida is extremely close, we will probably know who won on election night. If Biden wins Florida, it’s over. Trump will not win the election without it.

Georgia processes early ballots when received. We’ll know what happens in Georgia on election night.

Iowa processes early ballots beginning on Halloween. It’s likely we know what happens here but that might be delayed if their initial count takes a few days.

Nevada counts their ballots as received. We’re going to know on election night.

North Carolina doesn’t tally early ballots until election night but has them processed and ready to go. It’s likely we know on election night.

Ohio is an odd duck. They will release numbers for early ballots and everything they can count on election day. After that however they provide NO updates until November 28th. This is another state Trump must win. If Biden takes it, it’s unlikely Trump has a path to re-election. The state is a coin flip according to 538 right now. A nightmare scenario is neither candidate having the votes to win without Ohio and Ohio being too close to call until they certify. That means waiting almost FOUR WEEKS to find out who won. While I don’t think this will happen, it’s a scenario people should be ready for.

Pennsylvania CANNOT count early votes until the polls close. Their secretary of state expects most of their votes will be counted on election night, but this is another possible problem area.

Texas processes early ballots as they arrive but does not begin tabulating them until this weekend. I think it’s likely we know Texas on election night but this is another state which could take a while if the race is close. Needless to say, Trump cannot lose Texas. In fact if every state remains the same as it did in 2016 but Texas flips, Biden wins.

I want to note there are states which we KNOW will take weeks to finish counting – Alaska and California for example. They aren’t going to figure into the presidential race, but there will absolutely be House races we don’t know the outcome of for several weeks. This is completely normal and happens every election year. We are more likely to know who holds the Senate, but it may take a few weeks to know the specific number of Senators from each party.

In summation, I think it’s most likely we know if Biden or Trump wins late on Tuesday. If not then, most likely some time the following day. There are plausible nightmare scenarios where we don’t know for weeks. In 2000 it wasn’t until mid-December we knew who the next president would be. While not quite normal, there is no particular harm in having to wait for the results, though Trump is sure to claim victory in any such close scenario.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

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