On the night of presidential elections in the United States, many Americans stay up late to find out who won. The reason? Most areas use electronic voting machines and computers to count-up ballots. With electronic balloting, election results are usually reported on election night or early the next day.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, and a move to mail-in ballots, it is likely that Americans will not know who won the presidency on election night. If that happens, some people are worried that U.S. President Donald Trump may not accept the results.
Days of counting ahead
Some state election officials recently warned that it may take days to count all the ballots that arrive in the mail. They must be mailed by Election Day, Tuesday, November 3. If the election is as close as it was in 2016, that delay may prevent news organizations from calling a winner.
Jocelyn Benson is Secretary of State in Michigan and a member of the state's Democratic Party. She said, "It may be several days before we know the outcome of the election. We have to prepare for that now and accept that reality."
Ohio's secretary of state, Frank LaRose, is a Republican. He has urged the public to be patient. "We've gotten accustomed to this idea that by the middle of the evening of election night, we're going to know all the results," LaRose said. He warned, "Election night reporting may take a little longer" this year.
A few states already hold elections largely by mail. There, delayed results are common. But the results of a presidential election have not been in dispute since 2000. That year, problems with ballots in Florida led to weeks of chaos and legal appeals.
Some election observers and Democrats worry about what may happen this year, as the president criticizes mail-in voting. Trump is a Republican. He has claimed without evidence that widespread mail balloting will lead to a "rigged" election.
"It's very problematic," said Rick Hasen, a law professor with the University of California-Irvine. "There is already so much anxiety about this election because of the high levels of polarization and misinformation," he added.
Hasen is among the experts who have been studying how the pandemic may cause problems for the U.S. electoral system. He recently gathered a group of academics from both political parties to suggest ways to avoid having a disputed election. Some members have thought about possible events like state legislatures or governors refusing to seat electors, or a candidate refusing to admit defeat.
Millions more ballots
Since the pandemic began, many Americans have been looking for a safer alternative to in-person voting. Voters requested large numbers of mail-in ballots for presidential primary elections this spring. The state of Maryland will hold an entirely vote-by-mail primary on June 2.
Election officials from both parties have supported calls for mail-in and absentee voting. Many states expect to be struggling to process millions more mail-in ballots than they usually do in November.
Each state has its own rules for accepting and counting mail-in ballots. In some areas, mail-in ballots can be accepted several days after Election Day. But they must be stamped with a postmark before voting stations close.
Some states count mail-in ballots as they come in, but others — like Michigan and Pennsylvania — have laws that bar processing such ballots until Election Day. That means the count will extend well into the next day.
Another thing that could delay the count is that Democrats are pushing to require states to accept mail-in ballots postmarked on Election Day. Democrats have taken legal action, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court required it for Wisconsin's April 7 election. But, because of that requirement, Wisconsin did not release results from its election until April 13.
Still, news organizations may try to predict a winner of the presidential election before the official vote count is completed. Those predictions are based on partial results, earlier elections and studies of likely voters. Without enough information, the broadcasters may not be able to call a winner on election night.
I'm Jill Robbins.