By Meara Geraty
Digital Content Coordinator, RepresentUs

October 16, 2020

Americans are used to getting election results late on election night, when networks usually make a call based on partial results from in-person voting. Keyword being partial.

“Everything you hear on Election Day has always been unofficial results,” — Brandon Wales, the executive director at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA.

In a normal year, the majority of Americans vote in person on Election Day, meaning these partial, in-person results can still give the media, voters, and candidates a pretty accurate picture of the overall results. But the vote isn’t truly done until the state election official certifies the results, usually several weeks later.

In 2020, things could be a little different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re already seeing a huge surge in mail-in and early voting this year, which means in-person voting results simply won’t be enough to give Americans any idea about winners and losers on Election Day. Mail-in ballots take longer to process, so we likely won’t have a full vote count for days or even weeks.

Americans need to embrace the new reality: In 2020, Election Day is Election Week.

Why will it take longer to get election results this year?

Here’s the short answer: Mail-in ballots.

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed how Americans live, shop, learn — and vote. With strains on in-person polling staff, physical distancing limiting the number of polling booths in each precinct, and millions of Americans at risk for serious complications or even death from the virus, an unprecedented number of people will cast their vote by mail this year.

Experts are predicting that up to 70% of all votes cast this year could be by mail, compared to the 23% of votes cast by mail in 2016.

Mail-in ballots are as secure — if not more so — as voting in-person,1 but these security measures, along with the logistics of sending a ballot through the mail, mean processing mail-in ballots takes a little more TLC.

Election officials have to open millions of envelopes (in some states, two for each ballot), cross-check the signature on the ballot with the voters’ signature, and carefully ready the ballot to be counted. What’s more, many states can't even begin processing or counting ballots until Election Day itself — sometimes after the polls close.

A map of the America showing time frames of when votes are counted

And we can’t forget: In 16 states, voters need only postmark their ballot by Election Day, and plenty of ballots arrive at election offices days later. This is especially true of our military members serving overseas. A majority of states by law have to give overseas military members and their families more time for their ballots to arrive.

Plus, unlike year’s past, there’s a partisan bent to how people are voting this year. More Republicans will vote in person, and more Democrats will vote by mail. That means that, for the first time, the sampling of votes counted on Election Day will be skewed towards Republicans, who will get their votes counted first.

We owe it to every American to count every one of these votes, just like we always have. The difference this year is that those huge numbers of mail-in ballots could be enough to drastically change the results after election night. We should be looking at November 3rd as a start date, not an end date, to this election’s results.

Do delayed election results indicate fraud?

On the contrary! As explained above, the surge in mail-in ballots could cause a delay in results due to the sheer volume election officials are expecting. Mail-in ballots are very secure and virtually fraud-proof, but can take longer to count. We should expect it to take longer to process those votes and understand that the results we see on election night will change as votes continue to be counted. Delayed results can actually indicate a secure and fair election. But don’t just take our word for it:

We may not have results on election night. We encourage people to not be concerned about that. That is normal. It doesn’t mean the process has been compromised; it means the system is working. Local and state officials are professionals. Let them do their jobs.” Brandon Wales, executive director at CISA

But we get it — Americans are used to getting results quickly. And this is where things could get tricky. In our polarized climate with rampant disinformation, the media or candidates themselves could capitalize on this expectation to declare a winner before every vote is counted.

The danger of delayed election results isn’t that the end results will be inaccurate, but that bad actors could act to prevent all the votes from being counted.

The candidate who is ahead on election night could prematurely declare victory, try to disrupt the ongoing ballot-counting process in crucial swing states, and spread disinformation to discredit mail-in votes. They could even try to send alternate electors to override the state’s popular vote. Any of these outcomes would put us on the brink of a constitutional crisis.

How can we ensure every vote is counted?

Two important ways:

First, we can push lawmakers to give state election officials the time and resources they need by letting states begin processing and counting ballots earlier, especially crucial swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which do not allow early processing or counting. Learn more about ballot counting here.

Second, we have to set expectations and hold each other, the media, candidates, and our election officials accountable by demanding that no winner is declared until every vote is counted.

Here’s how we can do that:

How can we protect against a disputed election and a constitutional crisis?

The most important thing to do is fight for an accurate count using our tools above. We’ve put these and other actions together into 6 impactful steps you can take to Save the Vote this year.

One of the best tools we have to avert a crisis is to set expectations for the American people now. No one can take advantage of election night results if the American people already know not to expect results for days or even weeks.

Only about half of voters nationally (54%) have heard or read something about how it might take election officials longer to count ballots this year than it has in the past. You probably know someone who belongs to that 54%. Send them this blog to spread the word now.

A government of, by, and for the people can only be achieved if we the people take action. What are you doing right now to defend our nation? 

You can't hack a mail ballot and the votes are easily verifiable — something the 13 states without any paper trail for in-person votes lack. Learn more about secure elections here.

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.