Election Day is here, but it could stretch into Election Week. Or Election Month.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t declare George W. Bush the winner of the presidential election until five weeks after Election Day. Similarly, it could also take days or weeks until we know whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden will take the oath of office in January.
The reason? An unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, hotly contested swing states, a possible record turnout and the threat of post-election lawsuits means it may take a while until all the votes are counted.
“The reality is anything could happen. We could sit here spending all our time talking about Michigan and Pennsylvania and for some reason it comes down to six electoral votes in Nevada. Absolutely anything is possible,” said Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections for Common Cause.
“The toughest part is that there are so many different variables that are all new,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University. “It’s like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.”
When’s the earliest we could know the results of the presidential election?
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are vying for several key states on the path to reach the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
When we learn the winner will depend on when those states finish counting their ballots.
Analysts are keeping a close eye on Florida, which is expected to have preliminary results on Tuesday night, and Pennsylvania, where the count is expected to take much longer.
Additionally, according to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, Arizona, Minnesota, Nevada and North Carolina are among the battleground states that may also play a big role. Those four states can count ballots before Election Day, so preliminary results should be available Tuesday evening.
Wisconsin, another key state, had to wait for Election Day to start counting. Officials there said they expect to have everything tallied 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,” Gov. Tony Evers said last month.
If Biden captures Florida or North Carolina, Silver’s model gives him a better than 99% chance of becoming the next president. Likewise, if Trump wins Minnesota, he has a 75% chance of being re-elected.
“It’s completely possible we could know by 11 or 12 on Election Night if one candidate gets enough states to get to 270 electoral votes,” said Joe Lenski, vice president of Edison Research, a Somerville-based polling research firm that will conduct the exit polls for a consortium of television networks.
“It’s all going to depend on the combination of which states are close and which get a candidate to 270,” he said.
If the race comes down to Pennsylvania, as some pundits are predicting, we might not know who the president is on Tuesday night.
That’s because more than 2.4 million Pennsylvanians already have voted by mail, 10 times more than in any previous election.
“Yes, it will take longer,” Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But having said that, I want to be clear that elections have never been called Election Night.”
How will the races be called?
Usually, most races are called on the night of the election, including those in New Jersey.
The Associated Press said it may take longer this time around because of the large increase in absentee and early voting.
ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN have a consortium called the National Election Pool. They all use the same exit poll data from Edison Research, but each network has its own “decision desk.” That’s why one network may project a race sooner than its competitors.
AP used to be part of that group but now conducts its own survey in conjunction with NORC at the University of Chicago.
Lenski said his consortium has been interviewing voters at more than 700 polling places, including early voting locations, and is making phone calls to reach those who voted by mail.
“We are also collecting the vote count, which entails having thousands of reporters at county vote locations and we have data feeds with more of the states out there,” he said. “There are many sources for that data.”
Because of the pandemic, poll takers will operate differently.
“We have implemented testing and safety procedures in the COVID universe,” he said. “Instead of handing a questionnaire to a voter, it’s on a table and there is social distancing.”
Lenski said the networks will wait longer to make their projections.
“This year we want to be more cautious and patient than before,” he said. “We don’t make any calls until our models are 99.5% complete.”
One reason for that is because more Democrats are likely to cast ballots early while Republicans are more likely to go to the polls in person, he said.
“The ones that count the mail-ins first, we expect those to look good for Biden, but other states will only report in-person ballots first, and those will go towards Trump,” he said. “It adds a level of complication.”
The 2000 election was held up as Florida struggled to count and recount the ballots. In many cases, the ballots never registered when the voter did not fully punch out the slot next to the candidate’s name. Poll workers struggled to count these “hanging chads” to see which candidate the voter actually preferred.
In the end, five Republican-appointed justices on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the counting with Bush slightly ahead, making him the 43rd president.
Pennsylvania could be Ground Zero this time around. It was one of three long-time Democratic states that Trump flipped in 2016 and Biden, a native of Scranton, strongly is contesting it this time around.
Biden’s lead in Pennsylvania of 1.2 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics poll average Tuesday morning is narrower than his advantage in either Michigan (4.2 percentage points) or Wisconsin (6.7 percentage points), the other states that had voted Democratic for more than two decades until Trump won in 2016.
The final 2016 polling averages put Clinton ahead of Trump in Pennsylvania by 2.1 percentage points, in Michigan by 3.6 percentage points and in Wisconsin by 6.5 percentage points.
Pennsylvania doesn’t count ballots early, has no previous experience with no-excuse absentee voting, and doesn’t have a way for voters to fix ballots with errors on them, such as mismatched signature, said Albert of Common Cause.
“Everybody is watching Pennsylvania,” she said. “Any of these issues in a state can make it so that state is not callable on Election Night.”
There already has been plenty of litigation, with possibly more to come. The U.S. Supreme Court on last week refused to overturn a state court ruling allowing ballots to be counted if they were postmarked by Election Day but received up to three days later. But three justices said they might revisit the issue after Nov. 3.
Trump blasted the decision on Twitter, calling it “a disaster” and accusing Democrats of “trying to steal” the election.
“Pennsylvania is the state I’m most worried about, because the parties are fighting so hard there and it will face election administration challenges, particularly during the pandemic,” said Rick Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, and author of a blog on election law.
When will we know who controls the Senate?
Maybe quickly. Republican-held seats in three East Coast states, Maine, North Carolina and South Carolina, are up for grabs, and a Democratic sweep would all but guarantee the party control of the Senate.
And that’s before polls close in Arizona and Colorado, two other chances for Democratic pickups.
In addition, GOP-held seats in Iowa and Montana are considered tossups, according to Inside Elections.
Meanwhile, Republicans are favored to oust only one Democratic senator, Doug Jones of Alabama.
Of course, if the races are very close, it could take weeks as the parties fight over which ballots should be counted, just as with the presidential contest.
When will we know who controls the House?
Democrats are expected to keep their majority, with Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight saying they were “clearly favored” to win and Inside Elections predicting the party gaining 10 to 20 House seats.
In New Jersey, only one Democrat, 7th District Rep. Tom Malinowski, was being targeted by House Republicans and Inside Elections just rated the race as “likely Democratic.” And a poll released Friday put Democratic nominee Amy Kennedy and party-switching Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd Dist., in a dead heat.
How many seats the Democrats wind up with won’t be known for days or weeks, however, as absentee ballots are counted long after Election Day. For example, the last House race in 2018 was called Dec. 6.
How will absentee ballots and mail-ballots affect the counting?
Mail-in ballots certainly will change how the count will go in New Jersey, but also in other states that are using larger numbers of mail-in ballots and expanded early voting.
As of Tuesday morning, nearly 100 million votes had already been cast, according to the U.S. Elections Project, run by a University of Florida professor.
Some states have been doing this for a long time, while others, like the Garden State, are new to expanded vote-by-mail.
Officials in 32 states began processing ballots — verifying signatures and preparing ballots for counting — a week before Election Day, according to the Pew Research Center.
Plus, 23 states and Washington, D.C., can receive ballots after Election Day as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3.
But two of the battleground states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, can’t begin counting their absentee ballots before Election Day, and both already have fought court battles over whether ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 but received later can count.
Each state handles vote counting differently, and the states on the West Coast will report results later anyway. (You can see when the polls close for every state here.)
“Nov. 3 will look very different than past Election Days,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “States will be processing more mail-in ballots than they have every done before. Voters need to be prepared for an extended count and even a recount.”
Even though New Jersey and other states count ballots postmarked by Election Day but received later, including from the military, Trump said they shouldn’t be allowed to do so.
“It would be very, very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on Nov. 3, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate, and I don’t believe that that’s by our laws,” he told reporters at the White House.
What about voter fraud?
Despite claims by Trump and his Republican allies, there is no evidence that absentee balloting is marred by fraud.
A 2017 study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, found the rate of voter fraud was 0.00004% to 0.0009%.
And the Washington Post found possible double voting or voting on behalf of dead people in just 372 of 14.6 million ballots cast in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, which send ballots to all registered voters just as New Jersey did this fall.
What are the deadlines for picking the next president?
The Electoral College, the body that actually elects the president, meets Dec. 14. So states must certify their elections by then.
Congress meets in joint session on Jan. 6, 2021, to accept the electoral votes and ratify the results of the election. The president is inaugurated on Jan. 20.
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