NORTH CAROLINA — If you think you’ll know the winners of the 2020 general election by the time you go to bed on election night, you might want to think again.
In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a record number of Americans cast their ballots ahead of Election Day this year, a fact that could very likely lead to a delay in knowing whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden will be the country’s next commander in chief.
Wondering how long you’ll have to wait? Here are a few things we know for certain as we head into Election Day 2020:
1) The United States saw an unprecedented spike in early voting this election.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic prompted droves of Americans to head to the polls early, many to avoid the Election Day rush and others to make sure their votes reached election officials before applicable deadlines.
As of Monday morning, Americans had cast a record-breaking 95 million early ballots. That's almost twice the number of pre-election votes that were cast in the 2016 election, according to the U.S. Elections Project, a turnout-tracking database run by University of Florida professor Michael McDonald.
It’s also about 65 percent of the total number of people who voted in the 2016 election, according to a New York Times database.
In North Carolina, 4.5 million early votes were cast, or about 71.5 percent of the total number of people who voted in 2016, according to the U.S. Elections Project and the Times.
In many states, Democrats requested mail-in ballots at higher rates than did Republicans, supporting an idea experts call the “red mirage,” The Associated Press reported. This means Trump could see significant vote gains on election night, only to see those gains disappear as mail-in ballots are counted in the following days.
In the days leading up to the election, Trump also threatened legal action to stop the tabulation of ballots arriving after Election Day.
As soon as polls close in battlegrounds such as Pennsylvania, Trump said, “we’re going in with our lawyers,” according to ABC News.
2) Some states legally aren’t allowed to start counting ballots before Election Day.
Once ballots are received by election officials, they enter a stage called pre-processing. In states including Michigan and Pennsylvania, ballots aren’t allowed to be counted until Election Day. In others, such as Georgia and Minnesota, ballots are pre-processed upon receipt.
In North Carolina, ballots are pre-processed before election day, according to a compilation of regulations reported by The New York Times.
Pre-processing is a mundane task that usually includes verifying signatures and other voter information to ensure legitimacy, as well as separating ballots from their envelope. This process readies ballots for counting on Election Day and helps speed up the release of results.
Once ballots move through pre-processing, they are ready to be tabulated, a process that cannot start until Election Day regardless of where you live.
3) There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding how long states will need to report a majority of results.
It’s the million-dollar question in this election: Will we be waiting hours, days or, at worst, weeks for unofficial results?
The New York Times asked officials in every state and the District of Columbia about their reporting processes and what share of votes would likely be counted by noon on Nov. 4, the day after the election.
A significant number of votes could still be outstanding even after early and in-person ballots are counted, the Times reported. Only eight states expect to have at least 98 percent of unofficial results reported by noon the day after the election. Meanwhile, 22 states and the District of Columbia allow postmarked ballots to arrive after Election Day, so timing there will depend on when voters return them.
In North Carolina, officials told the Times that about 97 percent of the state's cast ballots will be reported by election night, however postmarked ballots may arrive up to Nov. 12 in order to count.
Regardless of how long it takes state officials, results are never official until final certification, which takes place in each state in the weeks following the election.
4) Legal battles are creating more potential for problems in some states.
As state election officials sought to make voting easier for Americans during the pandemic, many of the steps taken were challenged in court.
In fact, more than 300 election-related lawsuits in 44 states have hit court dockets since the pandemic began, according to an election litigation tracker facilitated by the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project.
Potential problems loom in hotly contested swing states such as Pennsylvania. Despite pleas from local election officials, Republican state lawmakers there have refused to allow additional time to process ballots that arrive before Election Day.
Pennsylvania is expected to see 3 million or more mail-in ballots — half of this year’s total and a tenfold increase from 2016, AP reported. Registered Democrats are applying at a rate of nearly 3 to 1 over Republicans.
Democrats in Wisconsin, another closely watched state, sued in federal court to allow tabulation of absentee ballots before Election Day. They argued that the law made it difficult for clerks to address problems with ballots.
The judge was unmoved, according to AP, noting in a September ruling that state law already allows for errors made on the outside of absentee ballots to be corrected before Election Day.
Also, since polling indicates a majority of Trump’s supporters plan to cast their ballot on Election Day, while more than half of Biden’s backers plan to vote by mail, Americans should expect the Trump campaign’s legal team to challenge the validity of many mail-in ballots cast in battleground states.
“We will have a sizable contingent of lawyers who will be ready to fend off any of the shenanigans that Democrats are trying,” Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, told AP last week.
5) Look to the South for a clue who will be our next president.
While it’s unlikely we’ll know the outcome of the election by Tuesday night, results from two states could signal which way the race is leaning, according to AP reports.
Both Florida and Georgia allow election officials to start processing ballots weeks before Election Day, which means the timeline for calling races in both states won’t be much different from what voters experienced in the past.
If Biden wins either state, Trump’s chances at winning are diminished.