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Home » Who Declares The Winner On Election Night? The Media, And A Delay This Year Would Be No Cause For Alarm
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Who Declares The Winner On Election Night? The Media, And A Delay This Year Would Be No Cause For Alarm

Topline

Americans have grown accustomed to learning election results within hours of the closing of the polls on Election Day, a tradition so strong that President Trump called the prospect of delays due to mail-in voting “totally inappropriate” on Tuesday —  but this ritual of rapid announcements of state-level vote counts and overnight concession speeches is driven by news outlets, not legal processes, so a slight delay this year would not actually disrupt the system or jeopardize the election’s integrity.

Key Facts

The U.S. Constitution grants state governments the authority to set up their own election processes, so every state has a different deadline to finish up counting, but most states give officials at least a week after Election Day to “certify” their final state-level results.

Electoral College members must begin meeting in early December, and Congress counts electoral votes in early January, meaning national-level results are not officially tabulated until about two months after Election Day.

Americans usually know the election’s outcome well before then because local election officials work quickly to count ballots and begin releasing unofficial tallies soon after the polls close, but a slight delay in these unofficial results due to mail-in voting or other logistical problems would be neither illegal nor particularly unusual in most states.

Media outlets analyze local tallies — along with exit polls, historical results, and other data — to predict each state’s winner, often calling the race well before counting is even finished, but these predictions are unofficial and there is no deadline for them.

Key Background

The coronavirus has pushed an unprecedented number of Americans to vote by mail, a shift some observers warn could delay election results. Most states do not start counting their mail-in votes until Election Day itself, meaning counting could take longer as officials rush to process millions of mail-in envelopes. Plus, many mail-in ballots could arrive after Election Day due to controversial changes at the U.S. Postal Service, and some states are required to count those ballots, possibly adding days of extra vote-counting. Despite these risks, Trump and his allies have insisted that the election’s result needs to be known on Election Night. But while waiting a few extra days might be anxiety-inducing, it would not portend a crisis.

Crucial Quote

“It would be very very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on November 3rd, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate, and I don’t believe that that’s by our laws,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday.

Tangent

The media generally predicts every state’s result at some point on Election Night itself, but delays are far from unusual. Most infamously, media outlets projected in 2000 that Al Gore narrowly won Florida, but they retracted this call and later gave the state to George W. Bush, kicking off weeks of recounts and uncertainty before the Supreme Court eventually halted all recounting efforts. In 2012, Florida was once again extremely close, but news outlets waited two days before finally calling the state for Barack Obama.

Further Reading

When Will Mail-In Ballots Be Counted? See States’ Processing Timelines (NPR)

How Long Will Vote Counting Take? Estimates and Deadlines in All 50 States (New York Times)

The pivotal post-Election Day dates you need to know (CBS News)

Explainer: Red mirage, blue mirage – Beware of early U.S. election wins (Reuters)

Source: Forbes – Business

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