LOS ANGELES - Will the winner of the presidential election be known once election night is over? How long will it take to count all the votes? While it’s uncertain how things will ultimately unfold during the 2020 presidential election, more people than ever are voting by mail due to the pandemic, and that means a delay in final tallies is likely.
“I think that we should prepare ourselves for the possibility — I think there’s a realistic possibility — that we’re not going to know all of the results on election night, and possibly including the presidency, but that’s okay,” Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub with the Federal Election Commission said in August.
“It’s going to take a while,” she added. “There are some states that are very used to it and will be able to count up all the votes very quickly. Other states are not used to having that level of absentee voting.”
On Nov. 2, more than 95 million Americans had already voted in the 2020 presidential race. And while some states have well-developed early balloting systems in place, other states do not allow local authorities to begin the process of counting until after the polls are closed.
“There are some states that are very used to it and will be able to count up all the votes very quickly. Other states are not used to having that level of absentee voting,” Weintraub said. “So if you’re sitting on millions of ballots and can’t even start counting until election night, it’s unlikely you’re gong to be able to finish that count on election night.”
And the final result could all come down to six key swing states.
The six hotly contested battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are expected to have extremely tight outcomes and many experts agree that they are most likely going to determine the election result. These states account for a whopping 101 of the 270 electoral votes required to win an election, so will the states’ voting results be determined slowly or quickly?
Quicker results expected
The results in Florida should move quickly. Since Florida has been accustomed to handling mail-in voting, the system in place is likely to be efficient.
In addition, Florida “has laws (like letting counties process absentee ballots weeks in advance and not accepting most ballots that arrive after Election Day) that encourage an early count. In other words, results should be nearly complete within a couple hours of polls closing,” polling analysis site FiveThirtyEight reported.
Democrats, Republicans, and supervisors of elections agree that voting by mail in Florida is safe and secure. Years ago, Florida absentee ballots were phased out in favor of vote-by-mail for all who request it. And in Florida, voters have to specifically request a mail-in order to receive one — which means there is a paper trail.
Keep in mind that some larger counties make take longer to handle the heavy volume of mail ballots, so we still may not know who won the state on election night.
Polls in Florida close at 8 p.m. ET.
The earliest time that results can be reported in Arizona is after 10 p.m. ET under state law, but according to political experts, you can expect the state’s results to move relatively quickly.
The state has local laws which allow officials to begin tabulating early ballots, and early returns are counted for two weeks leading up to Election Day.
"If voters want to be part of the first release of election results, they should vote early because those are the ballots we count ahead of Election Day," Erika Flores with the Maricopa County Election Department told FOX 10 Phoenix.
A historic number of early ballots have already been returned in Arizona. According to data from Maricopa County, the largest county in the state, more than 1.6 million voters in the county have already cast ballots, representing about half of the county's registered voters.
“However, absentee ballots received at the last minute will not be reported until perhaps Thursday or Friday. So if it’s a close race, we might have to wait for those last few ballots before knowing who won,” FiveThirtyEight said of Arizona.
Polls close in Arizona at 9 p.m. ET.
You can expect the Tar Heel State’s results to be tallied fairly quickly.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections estimates that 80% of votes will be cast early or by mail and will be released once polls close, according to NPR.
“Election Day returns will then trickle out over the course of the next several hours (those results are expected to take longer than usual because equipment must be sanitized after polling places close),” FiveThirtyEight said.
North Carolina does accept mail ballots that arrive by Nov. 12 as long as they are postmarked by Election Day — a policy which was recently upheld by the U.S Supreme Court — meaning if the race is tight, it could take several days to have full results in the state.
Polls close in North Carolina at 7 p.m. ET.
Slower results expected
Michigan is expected to move slower.
According to early voting data from the Michigan secretary of state, 2.9 million residents had already submitted their vote. And while estimates from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson put Michigan's forecasted total vote at around 5 million, residents won't know for several days just how many people will ultimately cast their ballot.
“Absentee ballots take longer to process and count than ballots cast at polling places. And unlike other states, Michigan law provides very limited ability for clerks to prepare them ahead of Election Day,” Benson wrote. “Because of this, and the significant increase in voters casting absentee ballots, it could take until Friday, Nov. 6, for all ballots to be counted.”
The state legislature passed a temporary law allowing for absentee ballots to be processed and prepared for counting a day earlier — a process that began at 10 a.m. Nov. 2. But it likely does not leave enough time to count all votes by the end of election night.
Depending on how close the races are, Benson said the timeline likely means that outcomes will not be determined on Tuesday.
Polls in Michigan close at 9 p.m. ET.
Many experts are eyeing Pennsylvania as a deciding state, but vote tallying is expected to be slow going.
In a letter penned to Philadelphia voters, Mayor Jim Kenney said voters will need to hold on to the patience they've had leading up to Election Day even after their votes are cast, as counting of mail-in ballots in the state cannot occur until Tuesday morning. Thus, there will not be enough time to count all of the mailed ballots before Election Day is over.
The state’s election officials can also accept mail ballots that arrive up to three days after Election Day, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3.
“Overall, election officials estimate that the overwhelming majority of votes will be counted by Friday. That said, don’t rule out an even longer wait,“ FiveThirtyEight wrote.
According to the Associated Press, President Donald Trump and his reelection campaign are signaling they will pursue a legal strategy to try to prevent Pennsylvania from counting mailed ballots that are received in the three days after the election.
“The matter could find its way to the Supreme Court, especially if those ballots could tip the outcome in the battleground state,” the Associated Press reported. “Roughly 20 states allow for late-arriving ballots, but Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled legislature did not authorize an extension, even with the huge increase in mailed ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Polls in Pennsylvania close at 8 p.m. ET.
As of Monday morning, Nearly 1.9 million Wisconsin voters had cast their ballots, either by mail or in person, which is 51% of all registered voters.
But state law does not allow election workers to begin counting early ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day.
In Wisconsin’s 2020 primary election, Weintraub said there were long lines, but the votes were ultimately counted.
“One thing they did very well is that they had an orderly process for counting all the votes and it took them a week to count all the votes and everybody just waited,” Weintraub noted.
Wisconsin, however, is not expected to take nearly as long to tally its votes as Pennsylvania or Michigan. In fact, results could be announced by Wednesday morning.
"I believe that we will be able to know the results of the Wisconsin election, hopefully that night and maybe at the latest the very next day," Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said in media briefing in October.
Polls in Wisconsin close at 9 p.m. ET.Overall, some or all of the battleground states may appear to be leaning red on Election Day if more Republicans choose to vote in person as experts have predicted, and could change back to blue once more mail-in votes are counted. But even that outcome is uncertain.Weintraub stressed that the most important thing is to be patient and let experienced election officials do what they do best.“It will get us to a more accurate result if we let the election officials do their jobs and count all the votes and make sure they’re all valid,” Weintraub said. “It’s more important to get it right than to get it fast.”