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November 2, 2020

What can we expect from this Tuesday’s election night? Like many things in 2020, the November election will look a little different this year. One of the biggest differences is that it may take longer to count all the votes in some states. 

Every eligible voter deserves to have their voice heard and their vote counted. It may take longer to count the votes and verify a winner in this year’s election—but that’s not a sign that anything is wrong. Due to logistical challenges and health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, more people voted by mail in this election than ever before. In cases like this, prolonged ballot-counting periods are normal, legitimate, and necessary to ensure every voter’s voice is heard. 

This election will be one of the most consequential elections of our lifetimes. Given all that is at stake, it is critical that our right to vote remains protected, which means election officials have a duty to ensure that every eligible vote is counted—whether the ballot comes from members of the military abroad, a person with pre-existing conditions voting by mail, or someone masking up and voting in person on Election Day.

In response to COVID-19, many states increased access to mail-in voting and more voters used mail-in ballots than in past elections. It takes election officials longer to process and count ballots cast via mail than votes cast in person because ballots cast by mail need to be opened, batched, sorted, and verified before they are counted. What’s more, in some critical battleground states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, election officials can’t even start processing mail-in ballots until Election Day. Unfortunately, Republican-controlled legislatures in these key states have blocked efforts to allow mail ballots to be processed ahead of Election Day, and the refusal to revise ballot processing rules will likely lead to longer wait times in these states.

The health precautions taken by election workers as a result of COVID-19 may also delay results. As is happening in many workplaces across the country, election officials are being careful to stay socially distanced and are sometimes working with reduced staff or fewer resources. 

As we await results, we must be aware that this moment is ripe for the spread of misinformation and disinformation.  When people throughout the country are waiting with bated breath for the election results, it can be tempting to believe and share premature claims by individuals, organizations, or even candidates of supposed election outcomes. A candidate prematurely declaring victory based on partial and indecisive voter returns would be an illegitimate claim to victory and must be covered that way by the press.

Social media platforms—such as Facebook, Twitter, Nextdoor, Reddit, Instagram, and TikTok— may be used, both by bad actors and unsuspecting users, to delegitimize the election process and cause chaos. Being mindful of not sharing information without a clear, credible source and exercising caution when it comes to interpreting social media posts throughout each phase of the election process—from initial counts and media projections to canvassing and recounts to the Electoral College and congressional certification—will help the country to avoid mass confusion around election results and protect the legitimacy of our elections.

No one in the media or in either party should rush to make any announcements about who has won the election until the results are clear, even if it takes some time to arrive at that conclusion. Delays are not unusual—we often don’t know the results of many down-ballot races until the days or week post-election, and there have been multiple recent presidential elections when we didn’t know the results the night-of. When election officials take the time to count and verify every ballot, that is a sign that our democracy is working.  

Looking for a source you can trust to call races only once votes have been counted?  The Associated Press is the primary source for election reporting—other major news organizations look to the AP to decide whether or not to call races or report election outcomes. The AP will also reportedly publish explainers on why counting may be delayed in certain places in real time. 

Learn more about Election-Night expectations: CAP Event: #ElectionNightExpectations.

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