Americans brace for election night uncertainty with expansion of mail voting

Citizens cast their ballots in person at the Salt Lake County Government Center during the first day of early voting in Utah on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

(Steve Griffin, KSL, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — Not since 2000 has the result of an American presidential race remained uncertain long past Election Day. With the nationwide expansion of mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, people across the country may now get a taste of the waiting game Utahns have played for years.

Many statewide races in heavily Republican Utah are not close and do not require days of waiting to determine a victor. But in close races, the public, media and candidates find themselves watching and waiting for each day's batch of new results until one candidate builds an insurmountable lead.

It took a week for the Associated Press to call the GOP gubernatorial primary in favor of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox this year. In 2018, Ben McAdams' 4th District victory over incumbent Rep. Mia Love took two weeks to settle, as the margin was fewer than 700 votes.

This year, McAdams finds himself in another tight race with Republican challenger Burgess Owens that's highly unlikely to be settled on Nov. 3. And Utahns might have to go to bed without knowing whether President Donald Trump has earned a second term, or former Vice President Joe Biden has ousted him.

Trump has suggested that returns counted after Election Day could be used to deliberately turn the election away from him and toward Biden. On Twitter Sunday, Cox called that theory "garbage."

"The truth is that elections are never decided on election night," Cox wrote. His office oversees Utah elections, though Cox has recused himself from those duties as a candidate.

It takes two weeks to get a final vote tally in Utah, Cox pointed out, and though media or candidates may declare a winner before then, "it only matters when every eligible vote is counted and each county canvasses and certifies the vote totals."

The Associated Press "calls" major races on and after Election Day when it has enough data to do so. KSL and many other outlets use AP calls to declare winners.

The outlet released a story last week elaborating on its process for determining winners. "If AP cannot definitively say a candidate has won," explained AP deputy managing editor David Scott, "we don't speculate." Famously, the AP did not issue an election night call for Florida's presidential vote in 2000, saying it was still too close even as other outlets prematurely declared a winner.

The AP relies on a network of stringers and journalists to collect local data from county clerks, as well as state and county websites, to track the results until it can make a projection.

FiveThirtyEight recently released an article about when voters can expect election results from each state. The article says there's a "good chance" we won't know who won the presidency on election night.

Some "swing" states, where the vote is expected to be close, will release most of their results on election night. Florida is one such state, FiveThirtyEight says.

But other swing states, like the crucial Pennsylvania, are going to take some time. What's more, some states' results will move one direction or another after the initial election night returns because Republicans are expected to vote disproportionately on Election Day and not in advance. For states that count their mail ballots as they come in, there may be a red shift in store; but for states that will count most of them later, like Pennsylvania, late returns may shift the race toward Biden and the Democrats.

It's going to be strange, maybe even unsettling, to have to wait for the results of the presidential election. There's even a chance it could lead to civil unrest. But, as Cox said, delayed results don't mean something is amiss. It's just democracy in action, even during a pandemic.

2020 Election

Increased mail-in voting, COVID-19, and a variety of state-by-state election formats contribute to a unique 2020 election. As a result, it is likely that many close House and Senate races, as well as the presidency, will not be called on Nov. 3. States may also shift in outcome in the days or weeks following the election — an expected change experts have warned about as results are returned. While human error happens, both mail-in and in-person voting have extremely low rates of fraud. The state of Utah has used vote-by-mail since 2012. It has safeguards in place to make sure every ballot it receives is legitimate.

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