The 2020 elections are already underway in several states, but that doesn’t mean the rules aren’t changing just yet. (We’re all following them here.) In the last eight days alone, four major swing states have provisionally extended the deadline by which postal ballots must be received.
- The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that ballot papers can only arrive on November 6th and still count as long as there is no evidence (e.g. a postmark) that they were sent after election day (November 3rd).
- A state judge in Michigan decreed These ballot papers can be counted as long as they are postmarked the day before the election (November 2nd) and received by November 17th.
- A federal judge ordered Wisconsin Count postal ballot papers that are postmarked by November 3rd, as long as they arrive by November 9th.
- And North Carolina reached a preliminary judicial settlement with plaintiffs who would, among other things, allow ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked by November 3rd and arrive by November 12th. (However, the settlement has yet to be approved by a judge before it officially goes into effect.)
It is important, however, that these changes are not set in stone. Republicans can still challenge them in court. At least GOP lawmakers in Wisconsin already have appealed against this decision before the 7th appellate court, and Republicans say they plan to make the Pennsylvania decision to the US Supreme Court.
However, if they exist, these choices could matter. First, they appear to make it easier to vote by mail – a more generous window for accepting ballots means fewer voters will be disenfranchised for sending their ballots too late. In terms of horse racing, this should give Democrats a little boost in these states, as Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to say they plan to vote by mail this year.
Second, these decisions increase the likelihood that media companies will fail to declare a winner on election night in these four states. Given the crucial role these states will play in the presidential election – the FiveThirtyEight President predicts there is a 56 percent chance that one of them will decide the electoral college – this in turn increases the likelihood that we will not know the winner of the presidential race for days after the fact.
We haven’t written much about which states are likely to report the majority of their election results on election night and which will be delayed as this is actually quite difficult to predict. Several variables determine how fast a state counts its votes, including How many people hand in postal ballot papers? (which take longer than personal ballot papers) how early the state may Start processing postal ballot papersand how good the state election officers are. And as new court decisions and executive orders are issued every day, these variables are still subject to major changes.
But perhaps the surest sign that a state will not convene on election night is if it accepts postal ballot papers received after election day. By definition, any results that these states publish on election night are incomplete, as at least some ballot papers – and probably some – are still in transit. And given recent developments in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, that means the majority of the president’s swing states now (for now, at least) fall into that category.
|Status||Turning point opportunity||Deadline for receipt of the postal vote||Will ballot papers be accepted after election day?|
|North Carolina *||5||November 12th||✓|
|New Hampshire||2||November 3rd|
Right now, it looks like our best chance of getting a call on election night in a major swing state is in Florida. Not only does the Sunshine State not accept ballot papers that arrive after election day, but it is also starting to process postal ballot papers a few weeks too earlyThis enables them to publish the results extremely quickly on election night. On paper, Arizona also looks like it could be called on election night, though it doesn’t have a good track record of quick counting: 2018 took it on almost one week to declare a winner there in some close races.
However, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that we can declare an election night winner in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In addition to the fact that there may still be thousands of ballot papers in transit on election night, these states are likely to be slow to count the postal ballots that have already arrived as all three of them prohibits the processing of postal ballot papers before election day. (In contrast, North Carolina is allowed to Process post votes in good timeSo we should know the results of the postal vote, which will arrive shortly after the polls are completed by November 2nd – but then have to wait days for the rest.)
If Biden leads these states in the wee hours of November 4th, this could be the ball game: with postal ballot slips likely to be heavily democratic, his wiggle room will likely only increase as more postal ballot papers are counted. But if Trump is a leader in those states, we could wait days on the edge of our seat for any ballot. Since this is a clear possibility, we must continue to prepare for a world where we won’t know the identity of the next president until mid-November.