Election night viewing is stressful enough in a normal election year, but this year’s surge of mail-in and absentee ballots and the differing ways that states are counting them may make this year especially difficult to follow. If the presidential race comes down to the same swing states that factored in the 2016 presidential race, knowing how and when those states count votes and report them might just keep you sane on Tuesday night.

COVID-19 has impacted this year’s election in profound ways. Besides providing a referendum on the president’s handling of the pandemic at a national level, the practical result in states across the nation is a surge in requests for absentee and mail-in ballots. That surge will affect how states will be reporting election returns, since those types of ballots are more time-consuming to handle than in-person voting.

The Associated Press has taken a look at some of the key states everyone will be watching on Tuesday evening as returns come in and vote totals are reported. Its analysis suggests that we will be tempted to draw the wrong conclusions from early vote tallies unless we understand how those states will be counting and reporting on mail-in and absentee ballots.

The AP analysis depends on a fairly supportable assumption: Democrat voters prefer mail-in ballots and early voting, while higher percentages of Republican voters favor showing up at the polls on Election Day. If that assumption is sound, it leads to a couple of follow-up inferences.

First, if a state with mail-in and/or absentee balloting begins counting those ballots prior to Election Day, the first results to be posted on Election night will be those ballots, which should favor Democrat candidates, while later reports that include the in-person vote tallies will show a surge in votes for Republican candidates.

Second, if a state doesn’t begin tallying mail-in ballots until Election Day, the early reporting will favor the in-person voting and skew Republican until the mail-in vote-counting process, which takes longer, is completed.

So, expect more ups and downs in Tuesday night’s reporting than you’re used to seeing on Election Day and beyond, according to the AP. You will see surges and counter-surges because of the impact of mail-in ballots on the counting process.

Here’s how a few of the crucial swing states will be counting and reporting votes.

Pennsylvania. State law requires that mail-in ballots cannot be counted until Election Day. Therefore, look to early returns favoring in-person vote tallies, which should favor Republicans. Later vote tallies that include the mail-in ballots might show a Democrat surge.

Michigan. The state will begin counting mail-in ballots in larger cities the day before Election Day, so it’s uncertain whether enough will be counted by Tuesday to impact the early reported numbers one way or the other.

Florida. The state began counting mail-in ballots 22 days before the election, which suggests that early numbers reported on Tuesday evening will largely favor Democrat candidates, with a later Republican surge from in-person voting.

Wisconsin. Counting of mail-in ballots won’t begin until Election Day, so early vote totals on Tuesday evening will reflect more in-person vote totals, which could mean Republicans lead early.

North Carolina. The Tarheel State has been processing mail-in ballots early and will be allowing the late receipt of such ballots, due to a court case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The state doesn’t have a lot of experience in handling the kinds of numbers of mail-in ballots that this year’s election is generating, so it’s unclear whether its reporting on Tuesday night will reflect a large portion of those or not.

Georgia. Like North Carolina, it has been processing mail-in ballots early, but it’s also unknown how efficient the state has been in handling the large increase this year and what Tuesday night’s reporting will reflect.

Iowa. The Hawkeye State has been processing mail-in ballots early, so early returns should favor Democrat candidates.

Ohio. The Buckeye State has also been processing mail-in ballots early, so, like Iowa, early returns should favor Democrats

It’s been a stressful year. Yet 55% of Americans responded to a survey saying that Election Day 2020 will be the most stressful day of their lives. The issues and candidates are one thing; the effect of mail-in and absentee ballots could create more stress unless you know how they will impact the reporting Tuesday and beyond. If the election is close in the battle for Electoral College votes, we may not know for days – perhaps weeks – from Tuesday who actually won.

Everyone take a deep breath, and try to relax.

Photo from Shutterstock


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