When is an election officially decided?
It’s a question we all should ponder going into Tuesday – Election Day 2020.
Typically, Americans expect same-day results, especially with the presidency at stake. But it is worth remembering that what we usually hear and see in the late hours of the Tuesday following the first Monday in November are "unofficial" results. Or, more often, projections from news organizations based on near-complete results.
Usually, these "early" calls suffice to accurately tell us who won. Most elections aren’t nail-biters and there usually are relatively few problems that delay vote tabulations.
Still, counting all the "unofficial" results can take longer than a single day. And "official' results aren't in until a certification process takes place in the days and weeks after Election Day. These are typically formalities that draw little attention.
We make this point for a reason: As we all know, this is not a typical year.
We go into Election Day 2020 confronted by political divisions and suspicions many of us have never experienced. And, because of the pandemic, a record number of Americans are sending their ballots in by mail. This is a trustworthy system. And it's not just us saying it. Quad-City voters said it during the primary and are saying it now in record numbers by entrusting their own general election ballots to this system.
Already, 56,664 Scott County voters had cast votes early, by absentee or in-person, according to data released Friday morning. Meanwhile, 39,064 people had cast votes in Rock Island County as of late Thursday, most of those by mail, according to the clerk's office. (We hope those who haven't voted yet will do so; there are ample opportunities, and election officials say they are taking extra care to make sure polling places are safe).
We were a little surprised to hear election officials tell us Friday that, despite the large number of absentee ballots, they still expect to report unofficial results by late Tuesday night.
Of course, not all election jurisdictions will move this quickly. With the record number of votes sent through the mail, counting even unofficial results is probably going to take longer than normal.
Still, this is no cause for alarm. In close elections, it’s not unusual for results to be called after Election Day. It happened in the 2016 presidential election. It happened in 2004. It happened in 1960.
It took 36 days to resolve the 2000 presidential election, though that obviously is not an experience we want to repeat.
We don't know how long it will take to tabulate the votes in this election. But we have confidence in the election officials who are administering and overseeing this process.
What’s more comforting: There are layers of oversight aimed at scrutinizing them.
County boards and state election authorities examine the work of local registrars and poll workers in the days and weeks after an election — all before the results are stamped "official."
There have been attempts to undermine confidence in our election process. But we believe in these procedures. They have served us well over the years, and while there are extra challenges this year, we have confidence that 2020 will be no different.
We hope that people exercise patience Tuesday night. We may not – some analysts have been saying for weeks we probably will not – know the results of some elections, including the presidential balloting, on Election Day.
That’s not ideal, but it's still OK. It doesn’t mean something has gone wrong. Or that fraud is taking place.
What it most likely means is that election officials, confronted with an unusual election, will instead be working overtime to make sure the vote is counted accurately.
Yes, we realize some will use this moment to try to ignite havoc. Social media likely will be a particularly rich source of bile and conspiracy. (The latter, no doubt, aided by foreign adversaries.)
Don't get sucked in. Be patient. Maybe turn off Twitter.
The news media should exercise caution, too. Reporters and analysts should exhibit restraint and resist knee-jerk judgments and speculation. Being right matters more than being first.
We also believe the public should reward news organizations that exhibit these values.
The last days before an election are always tense. Election Day will no doubt be a stressful day, too. As we await returns, patience is a virtue that will serve us well.
It also doesn't hurt to remember that we are all Americans; that this will be true no matter who wins. It is what holds us together. It is true today. It will be true on Tuesday. It will be true the day after Tuesday — and for however long it takes to draw the 2020 election to a close.