Deal with it: Mail ballots could delay election result well beyond Nov. 3, and that’s OK

We’re used to knowing the winner of an election within hours of the polls closing. But expanded voting by mail in Illinois and elsewhere means it’ll take longer to count.

SHARE Deal with it: Mail ballots could delay election result well beyond Nov. 3, and that’s OK
Joe Biden (left) and Donald Trump.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump. Don’t worry if we don’t know soon after the polls close which one wins.

AP / Getty Images

You’ve probably already heard this by now, and you’ll hear it plenty more before election day on Nov. 3, but it can’t be repeated enough.

We might not know the winner of the presidential race on election night.

If that’s the case, there’s no need to panic or jump to conclusions.

It doesn’t mean your candidate is getting cheated. And if your candidate says he is getting cheated, there are legitimate, time-tested processes in place to sort out the facts. None of them involves guns or tweets.

We have become accustomed in this country to knowing the winner of an election within hours of the polls closing, and I’ll be the first to say I prefer it that way. It alleviates a lot of nonsense and anxiety.

But the emphasis this year on expanded voting by mail in many states, including Illinois, as a logical response to the health and safety concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, creates a situation in which it’s going to take longer to process the ballots.

Unless one candidate or the other wins in a landslide, it could take days to know the winner, possibly longer.

This is not evidence of fraud, as some will want you to believe; in fact, quite the opposite.

It will take longer to count the vote in part because of security safeguards to make sure mail ballots are legitimate and that voters have followed the necessary procedures that protect against fraud.

It also will take longer because of varying laws in the 50 states about when mail ballots must be received by election authorities and about when those officials can start actually processing the ballots.

In Illinois, mail ballots must be postmarked no later than election day, Nov. 3, and be received by Nov. 17 to be counted. There also will be drop boxes for mail ballots that will close with the polling places at 7 p.m. on election day.

Two weeks seems like a long time to allow the mail to arrive. Most ballots are received within those first few days. But every election some ballots straggle in close to the deadline. With this year’s concerns about the U.S. Postal Service, the two weeks makes even more sense.

This isn’t expected to be a point of conflict in the presidential race because heavily Democratic Illinois is considered a lock for Joe Biden.

But it could be a factor in a swing state like Pennsylvania, where election officials recently advised they would accept ballots until three days after Nov. 3,or Florida, where mail ballots have to arrive by 8 p.m. on election day to count.

On the flip side, election officials in Illinois can start processing mail ballots as soon as they are received, which will hasten the labor-intensive counting process. This is in contrast to some states — including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where they must wait until the polls close to begin sorting through mail ballots.

Drew McCoy, president of Decision Desk HQ, doesn’t necessarily expect the presidential race to take days to decide, but he must plan for the possibility. Decision Desk HQ is one of three competing organizations that will be tracking and tallying the unofficial national vote count — and making state-by-state projections — as a service to news outlets. There is no official count until the states canvass and certify their results a month after the election.

McCoy said his company must keep track of each state’s deadline for receiving and counting ballots, many that are still being changed day to day.

For McCoy, this is just all part of the behind-the-scenes process that most voters never see. But he is aware of the particular need this year for the public to understand what’s going on.

Where we might run into problems, McCoy believes, is if mail voting breaks down along partisan lines in a way that shows one candidate leading early and then being overtaken after more ballots are counted.

“It’s not a lead change,” McCoy said. “It’s just because we’ve counted different ballots. It’s not nefarious if suddenly the other candidate is in the lead. It’s a matter of which votes are counted in which order.”

The lack of uniformity between states regarding mail-in ballots reminds Chicago election lawyer Burton Odelson of the “hanging chads” that became a focus of the Bush-Gore recount in Florida in 2000, the last time a presidential election took weeks to decide.

Odelson was part of the Bush legal team that eventually prevailed before the Supreme Court, just days before the Electoral College met.

Heaven help us if it takes that long this year.

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