Part 3: The Dangers of Calling a Race Too Early

Counting will Take Longer. Calling Races Needs To, Too.

Just as election officials across the country have been forced to adapt to the ever changing circumstances surrounding the November elections, the media must also adjust its coverage and voters and politicians alike should manage expectations come election night. In particular, the media, candidates and political parties should be exceedingly careful when calling states and the election as a whole, as results will be processed and released differently than in years past.

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Processing and counting ballots has always been a days and even weeks long process, and that process is important to make sure that every vote is counted accurately and securely. Processing a mail ballot can take more time on the back end than a ballot cast in person, depending on the system. The ballots must be validated for authenticity, signatures verified, and ballots opened and scanned into the election management system.

States that allow sufficient time for preprocessing typically begin 7 to 14 days before election day. This allows officials to get a jump on mail ballots prior to in-person results coming in. However, some states that are seeing a massive increase in mail ballots this year do not allow preprocessing whatsoever. Pennsylvania, a state that has been heralded as a must-win for both presidential candidates, will not begin to process mail ballots until the morning of November 3, in fact, some counties have even announced that they will not begin processing mail ballots until the 4th for capacity reasons. This means that there will be a backlog of around 3 million ballots to process on election day and beyond.

Beware the Red — Or Blue — Shift

Moreover, those watching closely should be wary of a potential “blue shift” or “red shift,” depending upon the returns being reported first in certain states. In states that will not process mail ballots early, in-person ballots will likely make up the bulk of the first results available. Research conducted this election season indicates that Republicans intend to turn out in-person at much higher rates than Democrats, and Democrats are far more likely to vote a mail ballot. Therefore, a Republican lead in a state like Pennsylvania does not necessarily indicate an eventual Republican victory. The reverse is true in Florida, a state that has experienced high Democratic turnout with early voting and mail ballots. Initial results available from the Sunshine State may lean blue, but this alone does not give reason to call the state for the Democrats.

What Happens AFTER Election Day (Keep on Counting)

Ballots are counted for days following an election. In fact, in most states not all the ballots are even received until days after election day. Military and overseas voters, and in 22 states and D.C. regular mail ballot voters, will still have their ballots counted if they arrive after November 3, so long as they are postmarked by election day or the day before election day (depending upon the state). These grace periods last anywhere between 1 to 17 days. Counting these ballots takes longer, as none of them have been pre-processed before election day.

It is important to also factor in the time given for voters to cure their ballots. In many states, if elections officials find issues with ballots, they will notify the voter and give them a few days to correct any issues. Voters in some states have up to three weeks after election day to fix issues: only after these “cure” periods can all of those ballots officially counted or rejected.

Provisional ballots also need to be counted, and are always the last to be processed and counted because they are the last security stop gap to ensure that there are no instances of double voting or other mishaps. Most provisional ballots are cast in person on election day and cannot be pre-processed. Further extending the amount of time it takes to count provisional ballots, many states require that voters provide information to the election office within a few days after the election to confirm their identity and have their ballot accepted for counting.

Experts believe there will be dramatically more provisional ballots this election due to the fact that many states require people who have requested an absentee ballot to vote provisionally if they ultimately decide to vote in person. Various actors have told voters that the best way to get their ballots counted first is to vote in person, but in reality, the ballots counted last, processed slowest, and with the highest rejection rates are provisional ballots.

Slow results? Fast results? It’s Probably Not Fraud

A slow system isn’t necessarily a fraudulent one. Many states, like Pennsylvania, are expected to have slow results, as the state hasn’t made the necessary adjustments to their system to verify and count mail ballots in a more timely manner. In fact, in many states that are just getting used to having a significant portion of the electorate vote by mail, a slower counting system doesn’t mean the system is broken at all: it means that officials are taking every step required to ensure that each vote voted by the correct person and counted.

On the same note, a fast system isn’t necessarily fraudulent, either. States that are familiar with large quantities of mail ballots, like Colorado, usually have their results quickly. Steps aren’t “skipped”: these differences in speed are almost always due to differences in policies and procedures across states, like whether a state allows mail ballots to be processed or counted before election day or whether a state allows postmarked ballots received late to be counted.

What are the benefits of calling the election early?

Calling the election or claiming victory early, before all ballots have been properly processed and counted, does a deep disservice to voters. Any marginal gains made by doing so pale in comparison to the chaos that could ensue in the event that a race is called incorrectly.

Voters everywhere would not only lose trust in the media and in their politicians, but could also begin to doubt the election system or (incorrectly) claim foul play in the event that a decision has to be reversed or retracted. It is in the best interest of the nation as a whole to adapt to the new results timeline this election season and refrain from calling races or declaring victory before a sufficient number of ballots have been counted, even if that is days after election night. Local elections officials are hardworking public servants and the time commitment and hard work required to make sure that every vote is counted and every voice is heard should be respected.

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The National Vote at Home Institute is a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on expanding and implementing vote at home and mail options in all 50 states.

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