1. November 3rd is the last day of voting. Not when a winner will be known.
We’ve grown accustomed to news outlets projecting the winner on election night, but the increase in mail-in voting (and varying laws on postmark dates) make that less likely. What are the other important dates?
- Throughout November and early December: States count their ballots. Certification deadlines vary by state. This is when recounts and legal challenges would take place.
- December 8th: The so-called “safe harbor date” when all challenges must be resolved and results must be finalized so states can choose their electors.
- December 14th: Meeting of the Electoral College to officially elect the President. Remember, citizens technically vote for electors, not the candidates themselves.
- January 6th: Joint Session of the newly-elected Congress to finalize the results.
2. Fifty states, fifty different sets of rules.
It’s counterintuitive, but federal elections are run by state & municipal governments, who all have different rules about early voting, mail-in ballots, postmark dates, processing and counting start dates, recount processes, and certification dates. Due to COVID-19, states have been updating their laws over the last few months, and litigation may even lead to further changes. Be wary of sweeping statements made about how elections work and check out this roundup to look up your state’s laws.
3. Know the role the media plays.
We’re used to learning results from news organizations, but they are projecting the winners, not “calling” or “declaring” them. Only election officials provide official results, and they’re often not available for weeks after the election.
4. Understand the context of the numbers you’re hearing.
Metrics like “precincts reporting” have always been opaque, but will be even more confusing this year with so many mail-in ballots. States themselves can’t predict exactly how many votes will be cast and it’s quite possible the leading candidate may shift multiple times. This is normal, not a sign of fraudulent activity. How do news organizations decide who to project as a winner? Find out about the Associated Press’s process here.
5. Individual problems don’t mean the system as a whole has been compromised.
With over 200,000 polling places, ramped up mail-in voting, and complications caused by the pandemic, there will be issues cast as malicious that are actually human error. Keep in mind that reported problems with hundreds or even thousands of ballots would represent a minute portion of the 140+ million votes experts expect will be cast this year. While litigation and recounts may seem worrying, these are conflict resolution mechanisms built into our election system for this very purpose.
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