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A Guide to Watching the Election Without Losing Your Mind

Everything you need to know about how mail-in ballots could affect election night, when to expect a winner to be announced, and why everyone should hope it doesn’t come down to Pennsylvania

Photo Illustration by Joe Rodriguez. Images in illustration:Maksym Yemelyanov/Adobe Stock (TVs); Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times/AP Images(Biden); Bruce Kluckhohn(Trump)

Election Day 2020 is going to be a wild one.

There are two big reasons for this. The first is that Covid-19 has led an unprecedented number of Americans to use mail-in ballots, and different states have different procedures for counting them. This usually doesn’t matter, but since there are going to be so many mail-in ballots this year, it could cause some wonky fluctuations regarding which candidate appears to be leading in which states and when. It’s going to be tricky to navigate, and it’s likely to lead to a more protracted vote-counting process than we’ve seen in elections past.

The second reason is that President Trump is actively trying to steal a second term in office. Trailing in the polls, his campaign seems to have reasoned that his best chance to stay in power is to declare victory if he’s ahead on Tuesday night, arguing that ballots not counted by the end of Election Day are not valid, and then sue states who try to tabulate legally cast ballots after November 3rd. It’s an absurdly blatant effort to subvert democracy, but this is the state of things.

Absent a Biden landslide smothering Trump’s chances to claim he won before all the ballots are counted, Tuesday night is likely to be full of uncertainty, which leaves the results vulnerable to disinformation from Trump and others. To get a better sense of what to expect, we spoke to Charlotte Swasey, vice president of data and polling at Data For Progress, and the coordinator of the Election Night Integrity Project, a joint venture between DFP and VoteAmerica aimed at providing “responsible reporting and visualization during the 2020 general election.”

Here are a few key points to keep in mind:

We’re probably not going to know who won on election night

States counting ballots after Election Day is nothing new. It happens every cycle. But there’s usually enough information available on election night to determine who won. This isn’t likely to be the case this year, as states are contending with an influx of mail-in ballots, and are expected to exercise more caution than usual in processing results. So are the networks that will be reporting those results. “I think at this point the news outlets and the AP are sufficiently nervous about preemptive calls, and I don’t think we’re going to get it until the next day no matter what,” Swasey says.

Based on when states have indicated they’re going to release their results, Swasey estimates that we could have a call sometime late Wednesday morning or early Wednesday afternoon. “I think by noon on Wednesday we’ll have Florida, and we’ll probably have a decent amount from Georgia,” she says. “I don’t think Pennsylvania is going to be done. But I think we’ll also get Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Arizona — at least enough so that a call can be made either way.”

If Pennsylvania is the tipping point, however, we might not know who won until later this week, or *gulp* beyond.

Beware of early results from states that already began counting mail-in ballots

Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Ohio are all expected to report their mail-in ballot results before their in-person Election Day ballot results. Because mail-in voters are more likely to favor Biden, the initial results from some of these key swing states could favor him, before swinging in Trump’s direction as they begin to report in-person results.

“The biggest thing to keep in your brain is how slow it’s going to be until we actually know anything,” Swasey says. “The first hour after polls close is this weird void where we have no more information. The states that have been pre-processing early votes are going to give us data maybe by like 8 p.m., but it still won’t be complete enough to say literally anything about the national state of the race. Anything you’re seeing on election night is conjecture, projection, and forecast — and even if it’s done really well, no one has complete information yet.”

…and of early results from states that aren’t permitted to count mail-in ballots until Election Day

This is where things get hairy. Crucial states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are not permitted to begin counting absentee ballots until Election Day. Why? Because Republican legislatures refused to amend election rules to account for the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots that resulted from the pandemic. What this means is that all three states are expected to swing in Trump’s favor on election night, and even into Wednesday, while millions of absentee ballots likely to favor Biden are still outstanding.

Trump has already said that he plans to “go in” to the state with lawyers after Election Day in order to prevent absentee votes from being counted. “I don’t think it’s fair that we have to wait for a long period of time after the election,” the president said. It goes without saying that in no way is waiting a few more days for election results “unfair,” certainly not compared to how unfair it would be to the residents who cast their ballots legally only to have their voices go unheard.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, took issue with the president’s comments, writing on Sunday that the state would “be happy to defeat you in court one more time.”