When polls close Tuesday night, the next phase of the 2020 general election begins.
The voter’s job of casting a ballot will be over. The highly technical and once mundane rush to tally up all those ballots and determine winners will fall under heightened national scrutiny.
Compounding matters for elections officials is the coronavirus pandemic, which forced many states to make some changes to voting that could affect — and potentially prolong — the wait for returns on election night. The high-stakes, contentious presidential contest between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden could be close, and drag on for weeks.
Here are some things to know about those hours, days and weeks ahead.
Americans will start seeing results coming in from states beginning as early as 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time as polls close in different parts of the country. Florida polls close at 7 p.m. local time, but part of it includes the western Panhandle, which is an hour behind on Central Standard Time.
How long until the bulk of the votes are counted will depend on the state.
In Florida, elections officials have already begun processing the mail ballots they’ve been receiving in the last month or so. And millions of people will have already voted in person before Tuesday.
Those will be among the first results Floridians will see when polls close Tuesday. State law requires county elections officials to report all early voting and already-tabulated vote-by-mail results within 30 minutes. After that, elections offices are required to post updates every 45 minutes as election results from precincts come in. All votes cast at polling places on Election Day are due by 2 a.m.
Experts think that, because of Florida’s processes and familiarity with mail ballots, the bulk of the ballots will be counted fairly quickly — which increases the likelihood that Floridians may be able to tell whether Trump or Biden has won the Sunshine State within several hours.
But initial results on Tuesday night aren’t final. There will still be days of counting ballots ahead, including an expected glut of mail ballots arriving on Election Day, ballots from overseas voters and provisional and other ballots that have to go through a verification process. In a state with notoriously close elections, it may mean waiting to see those tallies before knowing a winner.
Some other states may have a more drawn-out reporting process this year.
The swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin can’t start putting mail ballots through ballot counters until Election Day, and Pennsylvania will count mail ballots that were received as late as three days after Nov. 3. That could mean it could take considerably longer to know how large portions of the electorate voted in those states.
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“We’re all going to have to be super patient,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University who teaches about election law.
It may not be necessary for the bulk of votes to be totaled before we’ll start knowing winners.
“Decision desks” that are used by media outlets to call races rely on statistics, exit polling and other analyses to project winners of races beyond just reported vote totals, so some states could be called by reporters for Trump or Biden before even the majority of their votes are counted.
Given that Trump has already made complaints about a “rigged” election, these desks are likely to take an especially cautious approach to calling races despite pressure to provide answers quickly.
Some TV networks got burned during the 2000 election in Florida by initially calling the state for Democrat Al Gore on election night, then retracting and calling it for Republican George W. Bush, and then taking it off the board. The election wasn’t decided until weeks later, on a margin of 537 votes for Bush.
Florida is again a key battleground state for the presidency, and polls here have shown that the race is tight. It’s unclear how long it may take to call Florida.
The Tampa Bay Times relies on the Associated Press in calling the presidential race and other state races.
While Floridians are at home on election night, those who sit on county canvassing boards will be busily working to process and count ballots.
Each county has its own canvassing board, usually made up of the elections supervisor, a county court judge and a member of the board of county commissioners, but membership can differ depending on the county and election.
In Pinellas County, Herb Polson, a former St. Petersburg City Council member, will replace Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus on the board, since Marcus is on the ballot. Circuit Court Judge John Carassas is chairing the board and County Commissioner Karen Seel is the third member. Former County Commissioner Susan Latvala is an alternate.
In Hillsborough County, Judge Margaret Taylor is the chair, with Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer as one of the members and another judge as the third member, with that member changing depending on scheduling.
The boards have already been meeting to deal with ballots that have been arriving. On election night and beyond, the boards will continue their work, including examining any flagged signatures on mail ballots, looking at write-in votes and overseeing the duplication of any ballots that were damaged or may have stray marks on them.
Voters whose mail ballots were flagged for missing or mismatched signatures have until 5 p.m. on Nov. 5 to submit a cure affidavit. That’s also the deadline for voters who cast provisional ballots to provide cure affidavits or supporting evidence to the board supporting their eligibility.
The counties have to submit their first set of unofficial returns to the state by Saturday, Nov. 7. But even those unofficial returns may be missing some ballots, including those of overseas voters, who have until Nov. 13 to return their ballots.
The boards also oversee any recounts that are triggered by close races.
While county canvassing boards often toil in obscurity unless there’s an issue with an election, their work is crucial. This year, campaign and party attorneys are likely to be keeping a close eye on the decisions of boards in several key counties.
A recount will automatically be ordered only if the winning margin in a county’s unofficial vote tally is 0.5 percent or less of the total votes cast. That will come after the counties produce their first sets of unofficial results.
For federal, state or multi-county races, Florida’s office of the Secretary of State technically orders the recount, while the local canvassing board orders the recount for all other races.
Candidates and political committees have no authority to request a recount in Florida.
A machine recount is simply done by feeding ballots back into tabulation machines to see if the vote totals change, whether because of an improperly calibrated machine or due to some other issue. The machines must be tested before the recount begins.
If, after a machine recount, the winning margin is 0.25 percent or less of the total votes cast, then a manual recount is ordered. Only the ballots that were set aside during the machine recount as “undervotes” or “overvotes” will be manually tallied in this case. Overvotes are instances where the machine reads that a voter picked more than one option in a race, while an undervote is if the machine reads that a voter picked no option in a race.
The hand recount may show that the voter’s intention of who they wanted to choose was clear even though the machine read it as an overvote or undervote.
Waiting...and waiting...and waiting
A lot of things could go awry this election. It could be problems at polling places that delay the closure of precincts. It could be more unlikely — but distressingly plausible — nightmare scenarios, such as cyberattacks or election-related violence.
Experts seem to agree that one particularly fraught area this election will be the simple act of waiting.
As Americans wait to learn who won — especially if it takes several days or weeks to know the next president — claims about voter fraud or disinformation about the election process could sow distrust and increase tension.
In September, the FBI issued a public service announcement warning that “foreign actors and cybercriminals” could use the time it takes to count ballots to spread bad information about voter suppression or voter fraud or to attack election infrastructure and undermine the public’s belief in the legitimacy of the election.
A premature or disputed claim of victory by a candidate could lead to discord. Trump has already cast doubt on the election, stating the only way he’d lose “is if this election is rigged."
In some states, the order that votes are tallied could create what is known as a red or blue mirage. Because Democrats this year have been more likely to vote by mail, states that tally mail votes early may see initial leads for Democrats that shrink as more Republican in-person votes are counted. Similarly, mail ballots that are counted later could lead to a late Democratic shift.
During the 2018 midterm election, Republican Rick Scott, then Florida’s governor who was running for the U.S. Senate, alleged without evidence that there was “rampant fraud” as continued counting of mail ballots narrowed his lead against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Scott ended up narrowly winning after both a machine and hand recount.
During the September presidential debate, both Trump and Biden were asked whether they’d urge supporters to stay calm and pledge to refrain from prematurely declaring victory. Biden agreed to wait, and said he’d support the outcome of the election. Trump did not directly answer, but said, “If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.” (There has been no evidence of systemic voter fraud in American elections.)
Making it official
Floridians likely will know the results of races well before they are made “official.” But in a tight, chaotic race, some of these important dates could come into play.
Under Florida law, county canvassing boards must submit final results by Nov. 15, and the state’s Elections Canvassing Commission will meet on Nov. 17 to certify them.
Dec. 8 is the “safe harbor” date for states to resolve any disputes in the election so that their slate of electors is accepted by Congress without issue.
As a reminder, U.S. presidents are chosen not by popular vote. Instead, those votes will determine the state’s electors — the people who will actually elect the president. The Electoral College consists of a total of 538 members, one for each U.S. senator and representative, and three additional electors representing the District of Columbia. Florida has 29 electoral votes.
Electors in each state will meet on Dec. 14 to cast ballots for president and vice president, and the U.S. Congress will meet in joint session on Jan. 6 to count the Electoral College votes.
Along the way, election disputes and court challenges in close races could complicate timelines.
But just because it may potentially take a while to know a winner doesn’t mean the election is illegitimate. If anything, it may mean the process is playing out exactly as it should and every legitimate vote is getting counted.
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