A skeptic’s guide to Election Day 2020

By Zach Montellaro and Tim Alberta
·10 min read

America is just one week from Election Day, but many voters continue to tell us they are confused about the rules and processes that govern the election — and downright skeptical that it will be administered in a fair, accurate and transparent way.

Having spent the last few months attempting to separate fact from fiction, we thought it would be useful to answer the most common questions and concerns we’ve found in one place, from the specifics of how mail voting works to the reasons why some states count ballots faster than others.

We hope you’ll share this with your friends and family to spread awareness of what to expect next week and why. Without further ado, here is POLITICO’s Skeptic’s Guide to Election Day 2020.

I'm worried my ballot won't count. Do they get thrown out for no reason?

No, ballots aren’t thrown out for no reason. But they can be rejected for not meeting the very specific criteria demanded by your jurisdiction.

This is especially relevant for people voting by mail. If a ballot is returned with a signature that is determined to not match the signature on file, for example, or if it is returned without the proper envelope (and sometimes there are multiple envelopes! All of these rules vary by state), the local clerk’s office can reject a ballot.

You should carefully examine the fine print included with your ballot material, and if you have any questions, contact your local clerk’s office. The good news is that many election bureaus now allow citizens to track their ballots, from the time they are mailed until the time they are received and processed, so you can make sure yours gets counted.

To find information on your state, you can visit CanIVote.org, an informational website set up by the bipartisan National Association of Secretaries of State.

Why are so many people suddenly being allowed to vote by mail? Isn’t this just a knee-jerk response to Covid-19?

Actually, most states were giving voters the option to vote by mail before the pandemic arrived.

According to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, 34 states and Washington, D.C., already offer, at the very least, permanent no-excuse absentee voting, meaning any voter in those states can request a mail ballot. In the 2018 elections, one-quarter of all voters cast their ballot by mail, according to research from the Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency. A tally from the Brennan Center, a voting rights organization housed at New York University, showed that more than one-third of voters in 10 states cast their ballots by mail in the last midterm elections.

Now, several states that did not previously offer mail voting to everyone are allowing it for the 2020 election, either by allowing voters to cite Covid-19 as their excuse for requesting an absentee ballot or by waiving their requirement altogether. Only five states still require an excuse, beyond fear of the pandemic, for citizens who want to vote by mail: Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

But wait. Isn’t it true that ballots have been mass-mailed out to everyone?

No. Not even close.

Most voters will not be mailed a ballot unless they have requested one. At the beginning of 2020, there were only five states — Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Utah — where every registered voter is sent a ballot, a system often known as “universal vote by mail.”

Because of the pandemic, four additional states adopted laws this year to mail ballots to all registered voters: California, Nevada, New Jersey and Vermont, along with Washington, D.C. Additionally, most voters in Montana are automatically receiving a ballot, but that decision is made on a county-by-county basis.

You’ll notice that of all the states we listed, only one, Nevada, could be generously described as a presidential battleground. The truth is, in the nine or 10 most competitive battleground states — the places where this election will be won or lost — a voter will not receive a ballot in the mail unless they applied for it and were verified by their clerk’s office.

The media always insists that voter fraud isn’t real. But aren’t there documented cases of it? And isn’t absentee voting far more vulnerable to manipulation than in-person voting?

It's not that election fraud isn’t real; it’s just extremely rare, on whatever kind of scale you use. That’s partially because it’s so challenging. Even if you’re willing to risk a federal sentence, there are so many safeguards in place — from individualized ballot bar codes to signature matching to voter database verifications — that defrauding the system is extremely difficult on an individual basis, much less on a bigger scale.

Election experts say that prominent cases of election fraud show how tough it is to pull it off, and how easy it is for officials to detect it. It’s difficult to cheat in American elections, and the evidence suggests that attempts at cheating are usually caught. The most prominent recent case was in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, where in 2018 a Republican consultant illegally collected and marked ballots on behalf of a candidate. But local election officials cracked the scheme and declined to certify the results, instead calling for a new election.

Now, some election experts do note that, historically, it’s been slightly easier for voter fraud to occur with mail ballots as opposed to in-person votes. But it’s getting harder: The security technology utilized in mail voting systems has advanced so dramatically that many of those same experts believe it’s close to a wash at this point. In a Washington Post study of three states with universal vote-by-mail programs, analysts found “just 372 possible cases of double voting or voting on behalf of deceased people out of about 14.6 million votes cast by mail in the 2016 and 2018 general elections, or 0.0025 percent.”

The other reason I don’t like mail voting is the delays it’s going to cause on election night. Why will some states have final results on Nov. 3, but other states won’t have final results for days or even weeks later?

It’s a good question. Every state has different rules governing when local clerks can process mail ballots, a procedure which includes everything from checking voter signatures to opening the envelopes containing the ballots to loading the ballots into scanners for counting.

Some states, like Florida, allow election officials to start processing mail ballots well ahead of Election Day, and the head start allows for faster reporting of results after the polls close. Other states, such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, don’t allow officials to start processing mail ballots until Election Day.

Ballots for the 2020 General Election in the United States are seen at Philadelphia's mail-in ballot sorting and counting center, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photos/Matt Slocum)
Ballots for the 2020 General Election in the United States are seen at Philadelphia's mail-in ballot sorting and counting center, Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photos/Matt Slocum)

Under normal circumstances, that state-by-state distinction wouldn’t mean much — the difference between Florida’s reporting of final results and Wisconsin’s might be a matter of hours. But this year, because of the historic number of voters utilizing mail-in voting, there will be a more pronounced gap in tallying time between states. (Also, keep in mind that some states, such as Pennsylvania, will count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and arrive some days later, as long as they reach election offices before a receipt deadline. That will also drag out tallying times.)

It’s important to realize that there’s nothing unusual about a political race going uncalled for days or even a few weeks. In 2018, the Arizona Senate race and a number of competitive House races were among the midterm campaigns that took time beyond election night to resolve. There are always some races that are too close to call in every election, and we have to wait for the final results. Sometimes there are recounts and recanvassing of votes. That’s OK, too. Clerks have an obligation not to count fast, but to count accurately.

If you’re feeling impatient on election night, blame the media! We’re the ones clamoring for quick answers. The television networks and the Associated Press all have dedicated decision desks that project the winners of races up and down the ballot based on a combination of vote tallies and exit polling data. (The exit polls, combined with what we know about party registration and other relevant data, are why media outlets often call certain states, like New York or Wyoming, before a single vote is counted.)

That said, in close elections, media outlets won’t project a winner until the vast majority of votes are counted and reported. And this year, because of the backlog of mail ballots in some states, it could take a few days for enough votes to be counted to give us a clear idea of who won and who lost a close election.

But wouldn’t a long delay open the door to mischief behind the scenes? Can I really trust the people counting all those late-arriving ballots?

First of all, the vote-counting process is incredibly transparent. Many jurisdictions have taken to livestreaming the rooms where it happens, and local parties are typically entitled to have representatives, known as “poll watchers,” observing the process. (They need to register ahead of time; concerned citizens are not authorized to just show up at a clerk’s office and attempt to supervise election activity.)

The level of oversight and scrutiny involved cannot be overstated. There are not only cameras monitoring the activity and party representatives serving as a check on the vote-counters; there are also the clerks themselves. These are highly trained people with intimate knowledge of their precincts. They know how to spot irregularities because they know exactly what to look for. If the federal government was in charge of counting ballots, you could have a real cause for concern. The hyperlocal way in which we administer elections brings its own challenges, but it also allows for maximum accountability — and with it, maximum accuracy.

A final thing to keep in mind: The people counting ballots are your neighbors. The people who go to your place of worship, shop in your grocery store or participate in your PTA meetings are the same ones making sure your vote is tallied correctly. (And, we should note, this happens anonymously. Poll workers cannot associate names with ballots.)

It’s true that some jurisdictions have partisan election officials, who seek office under the banner of a party affiliation. But these clerks are some of the most competent people you find in government, not fire-breathers and conspiracy theorists. Moreover, they are surrounded by bipartisan teams of civic-minded people who do tremendous work to preserve the integrity of our elections. You should thank them for it.

What happens if both candidates declare victory on election night? Who steps in to resolve it?

The media’s most basic task this November is to explain the nature of election results — why some states have finished counting, why other states are still tabulating, and why a candidate’s declaration of victory may or may not be premature, if it comes to that.

As we already discussed, we may not know who won the presidency on election night, because some key states will get such a late start counting millions of mail ballots. (There are also a few narrow paths through the Electoral College that could produce a quicker-than-expected election night call.) A delay isn’t a sign of fraud or malfeasance — it just means election officials are taking time to tabulate the results.

So, if a candidate declares victory before we really know the results, we can just say that. There’s just no way, if the presidential candidates are neck and neck in a host of swing states, for either of them to credibly claim victory.

Of course, anyone is free to declare a victory. But the winner of the presidency isn’t determined by who calls it first, no more than our hopes and dreams for our favorite struggling sports teams affect the results of their games. The winner of the presidency is determined by the tallying of results in November, followed by a vote by the Electoral College in December, followed by the formal certification of that Electoral College vote by Congress in January, several weeks before Inauguration Day.