President Trump’s upset win against Hillary Clinton was clear around midnight on Election Day 2016 as drunk college students climbed trees and sang “Sweet Caroline” outside the White House. But this year, with businesses in DC, New York and elsewhere boarding up expecting riots, results may be unknown for days.
News organizations that typically declare winners with limited official results are urging patience due to the counting of millions of mail-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Exit polling, meanwhile, is using a novel and imprecise new formula.
If the results are known on Tuesday night, it’s likely because Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden in important swing states that voted for him in 2016, such as Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio, which begin opening and counting mail-in ballots before Election Day.
But if Trump wins those states and GOP strongholds such as Texas, attention will shift to Rust Belt battlegrounds where most tabulation work begins Nov. 3, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which narrowly broke for Trump in 2016.
The Associated Press, which many news outlets use for declaring winners, tempered expectations with a Monday article saying changes this year may mean “in a close race, more of the vote may need to be counted.”
News wires like AP and Reuters are seen as more credible assessors of results, unlike TV news outlets that sometimes project a winner inaccurately in a bid to be first to call it.
Still, there’s never been a presidential race in history in which all votes are counted on election night. It’s just not physically possible to instantly count that many ballots — possibly as many as 150 million on the night of Nov. 3.
Media organizations declare winners in thousands of races on election night based on the results that are in, voter surveys and other political data. But in a close race, more of the vote may need to be counted before they can call a winner.
AP Deputy Managing Editor for Operations David Scott said at a Sept. 23 briefing, “When we declare a winner, it’s our final word.” Meaning, the group won’t rush to declare a winner under the unprecedented circumstances.
In some states, mail-in ballots will be counted if they are received days after polls close.
In Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral votes, the state Supreme Court allowed ballots to arrive at election offices by Friday night, even without a legible postmark. Republicans say that’s illegal and may contest results in court. Trump won the state by fewer than 45,000 votes in 2016.
North Carolina accepts late mail-in ballots postmarked on Nov. 2, but the State Board of Elections expects to have 97 percent of votes reported on election night.
Election workers must remove the ballots from their envelopes, check for errors, sort them and flatten them — all before they can be run through scanners and be tabulated. In states with well-established vote-by-mail programs, this processing happens weeks before Election Day. The results are often released quickly.
But several states did not have this system in place before this year and laws on the books prohibited election officials from processing the ballots well in advance of Election Day. Without a head start, there’s virtually no way to process and count all the mail votes on Election Day, while also counting all the in-person votes.
There are three important battlegrounds with restrictions on when the mail vote can be processed — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
News outlets expect results to whipsaw in some states. In Florida, mail-in results will be released first, with a stronger showing for Democrats. Later, in-person votes are expected to favor Trump. In Pennsylvania, in-person votes will be heavily represented at first, with Democratic-leaning mail-in votes coming later.
New York and DC businesses sacked during June protests over the Minnesota police killing of George Floyd are boarded up due to uncertainty about the public response to results.
Many unique factors will influence the outcome, including the number of mail-in votes that are tossed for technical errors — as happened with more than 84,000 New York City Democratic primary ballots on June 23. Since Democrats disproportionately voted by mail this year, that could help swing close races.
Cable news channels historically have projected winners and then retracted them based on new data, most infamously in 2000 when NBC News, CNN and others declared Democrat Al Gore the winner in Florida before the state ultimately went to Republican George W. Bush following a Dec. 12 Supreme Court ruling that halted a recount.
Projections are guesswork informed by calculations analyzing outstanding votes in areas of a state, with exit polls traditionally informing decisions.
This year, normal in-person exit polls outside voting centers are less valuable sources of information. For example, in Florida almost 64 percent of registered voters already voted by absentee ballot or in-person at an early-voting station.
Edison Research is performing 2020 exit polling for the National Election Pool, a group that includes CNN, ABC News, CBS News and NBC News. The data also is used by Reuters and the New York Times. The pool’s exit poll on Election Day will be “contactless” with surveys filled out by voters using pencils. Edison surveyed voters at early-voting sites in key states and is seeking to count mail-in voters with phone surveys.
James Goldston, president of ABC News, said “I’m actually super relaxed about” delayed projections. “My overall message to the team, both to our decision desk and to everyone associated with our coverage on election night, is the only mistake we could really make is if we get this wrong.”
NBC News said in a pre-election explainer that, “NBC News calls all races as soon as the [NBC] Decision Desk is at least 99.5 percent confident in a projection.”
“The Decision Desk independently analyzes vote data and exit poll data and uses proprietary statistical models, as well as a team of experts, most with Ph.D.s, in the areas of data analytics, polling, election administration and political science to interpret the results to decide when races can be projected,” NBC said.
“Election Day vote data is made available as quickly as possible, although it is likely in the general election that vote reporting will be slower than in past elections because of the pandemic,” the network said.
CBS News President Susan Zirinsky, meanwhile, told the Times, “We’re preparing the audience that this might not be over in one night.”
With Associated Press
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