Will vote counting really take that long? My hour-by-hour sanity guide for tonight

Before I get into my pragmatic guide for watching the election results roll in tonight, please take a moment to think about the real star of today’s historic event: The poll worker. There is so much pressure on election staff this year. There’s a deluge of mail-in ballots, there’s demands to be both accurate and fast, and there’s been so much heckling of the process — who would want this thankless job? Real heroes of democracy, that’s who.

A special thank you goes out to members of the National Guard who — wearing civilian clothes so they don’t spook anyone — will be “parachuting” into various districts where there is a poll-worker shortage. You’ve heard so much about the Guard being in place to quell potential riots. Far more will spend the day doing the boring but essential task of counting votes. Thanks to all of them.

As for tonight: When might we know who our next president will be? You’ve probably heard that counting might take days because of all those mail-in ballots, so the result could be unclear for a long time. There’s been plenty of talk that the election could be contested, the results vague, and we might be fighting for weeks. That’s possible, but I’m optimistic it won’t work out that way. I think we’ll have a pretty good idea by 11 p.m. ET tonight, perhaps even earlier. We’ll at least know, with a high degree of certainty, if state polls were way off like they were in 2016.

Ah, 2016. Here’s a reminder of how that night unfolded. It might provide some insight into the timing of tonight’s festivities. (Much of this courtesy The Guardian and Esquire.)

Early on, there was plenty of indication that Clinton was doing well. Even Trump advisor Steve Bannon said the exit polls he saw looked bad. But things turned very quickly. Between 8 and 9 p.m., Trump overtook Clinton in the Florida vote count. Before the hour was over, Fox News was openly speculating Trump might win. A few minutes after 9 p.m., Bannon says, he was sure of it. All the networks started talking about Trump’s electoral college pathway opening up.

The dominoes really started to fall in the 10-11 p.m. hour. Ohio was called for Trump at 10:39; Florida 15 minutes later. Just after 11, North Carolina went to Trump. After that, it was all over but the shouting. Pennslyvania was officially called for Trump at 1:30, and then at 2:30, victory in Wisconsin pushed Trump over 270 electoral college votes.

That timeline can provide you with a baseline for tonight. There are important differences today from 2016, but things aren’t *that* different. For example: An early Trump win tonight in Florida won’t seal the deal the way it did four years ago. Still, it would be a very positive sign for Trump supporters.

Won’t there be huge ballot-counting delays?

Counting ballots is a challenge. Here’s one flavor of that challenge from one county in Pennslyvania, courtesy of NPR:

In Luzerne County, home to Wilkes-Barre, Manager David Pedri told NPR the county is hoping to count a large portion of the mail ballots on Tuesday night, but won’t finish until Wednesday or Thursday. He said he has 40 people working from 7 a.m. until 9 or 10 p.m. processing and later counting ballots. Keeping them on the clock much longer can result in mistakes being made, said Pedri.

During the primary, Pedri says it took four days to count 40,000 mail ballots. They’ve since added an envelope opening machine that should speed the process, but this fall, Luzerne has sent out 70,000 mail ballots — a third of the electorate.

Still, while all those mail-in ballots will cause some headaches, the problem will not be as widespread as advertised, I think. Here’s why

Mail-in ballots must be both validated and counted. Validation, which usually involves a signature check, is often the more time-consuming step. And in most states, validation began long ago. Of the battleground states, only Wisconsin and Pennslyvania have clung to the anachronistic rule that votes can’t be validated until election day. So in every other state that matters, piles of valid votes already exist.

In some critical states — like Florida and Arizona — even mail-in ballot counting has been under way for some time. In Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas, vote counting began before election day. In states like Georgia, Ohio and Minnesota, counting couldn’t begin until today. But poll workers do have all day to feed the ballots into counting machines, often a process similar to in-person, day-of voting. So it won’t be as big a problem as some have said. I have faith in poll workers.

Yes, late-mailed, late-arriving ballots might cause fights and delays in final tallies in some places, particularly in down-ballot races. But in the race for the White House, they will only come into play if the vote is really narrow — perhaps narrower than 2016, when about 80,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennslyvania gave the victory to Trump.

Given that, here’s what to look for tonight:


7-8 p.m.

Polls close in Florida,* Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio

Given early mail-in counting in Florida and North Carolina, viewers might get an early sense of the count there. If Biden shows a big lead in either place, that would be news. Late-reporting districts with in-person voters might help Trump catch up, but are there enough?. That’s a story to watch all night.

Georgia and Ohio are must-wins for Trump; if those seem competitive, that’s a sign the polls were tracking well. If Trump outperforms polls in these states and seems off to an early victory, Biden has a problem.


8-9 p.m.

Pennslyvania, Michigan, *western Florida, and Texas polls close

Texas could provide some early news, as it has been counting ballots for a while. Is Biden competitive? Again, that would show polling in Texas was accurate. Is Trump pulling far ahead? A bad sign for pollsters and for Biden.

Pennslyvania is likely to be the laggard here. One-third of the votes there were cast by mail, and poll workers only began inspecting signatures today. Late counting means it’s quite possible definitive results won’t come in until late Wednesday morning, or beyond. So set PA aside for now.

As western Florida polls close, that conservative stronghold could provide a heavy pro-Trump vote. If Biden is far ahead in the state, those votes are Trump’s last chance to catch up. Should Biden have a strong lead in the state after this point, that would be a very strong sign for Democrats. Remember, this is the hour when the race turned against Hillary Clinton four years ago.


9-10 p.m.

Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan

Michigan allows some early vote counting, so it’s possible we’ll have pretty early results there. Biden needs to win there. If Michigan doesn’t switch for Democrats, that likely indicates a big polling error, and efforts to re-form the blue midwestern wall have fallen. Minnesota and Wisconsin officials have both said they feel comfortable that they’ll have results on election night — early validation will help.

I’ll get to Arizona in a moment.


10-11 p.m.

Iowa and Nevada close (and Arizona results)

Arizona polls close an hour earlier, but results aren’t released until 10 .m. ET. The state has actually been counting votes for a long time, so there might be very quick results. Trump won Arizona by only 4 points in 2016; still, a 2020 loss there — which will be blamed on sprawling Maricopa County — could indicate that his trouble in the suburbs is real.

If Iowa is close, that’s bad for Trump, too. On the flip side, if there are signs that Trump has flipped Nevada (won narrowly by Clinton in 2016), there’s a late-night sign that the Republican has in fact managed to widen his base. That would be a bad sign for Biden.


11 p.m. and beyond

California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho

When California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho close their polls, if the race is still a nail-biter by now, you’d have to say advantage Trump. This would certainly indicate the Republican has once again outperformed pollsters, and managed to find votes that pollsters couldn’t.

Biden supporters should know that there’s no realistic way he can reach 270 until the west coast polls close — he’ll need California’s 55 electoral college votes to reach the threshold. That wouldn’t stop networks from teling you Biden is the likely winner, however, if he’s been declared the winner in a place like Florida. On the other hand, if Trump wins in Florida, Pennslyvania, and ticks off one of the midwestern states, he’s well on his way. His path to 270 seems to require a Pennslyvania win, and since that late-starting state might be among the last to release vote counts, Trump fans might have to stay up even later to see their candidate declared the winner.

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About Bob Sullivan 1612 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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