Trump, Biden, Congress control? 2020 race calls may take days or weeks


Evans Witt and Sheldon Gawiser, Opinion contributors
Published 3:15 a.m. ET July 31, 2020 | Updated 3:45 p.m. ET Aug. 1, 2020

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With the election coming up in November, many wonder if we could have a contested election and how likely is that to happen?

USA TODAY

Votes will be counted very slowly starting Nov. 3. And that’s the optimistic view assuming no foreign hacking, partisan delays or machine failures.

There will be no election night 2020. 

Yes, tens of millions will vote Nov. 3, and that night the broadcast and cable television networks will go wall to wall with coverage of the votes dribbling in. There will be lots of graphics and weighty commentary. Partial returns will be dissected excessively, looking for guidance. “Breaking News” will flash on many a screen. 

What will the night lack? Decisions. 

The night the winner of the presidency will be declared? Not Nov. 3. 

And the night when control of the Senate is called? No, not Nov. 3. 

And the night when control of the U.S. House is called? Hmmm, maybe Nov. 3, based not on votes but on computer models. 

We have called thousands of races in general elections past, and there is always the journalists’ pressure to be first and to be right. After all, it is humiliating to make a mistake in front of millions of people. (We were on the NBC News Decision Desk in 2000, when it was the first to call Florida for … Al Gore.) Many nights, we waited and waited and waited for the votes to be counted to confirm the voters’ decision that our models suggested hours earlier.  

We all will wait a lot longer this year. Votes are going to be counted very, very slowly starting on Nov. 3. 

Pray for no hacking, equipment fails, partisan delays

And this is the optimistic view that assumes no Russian or Chinese hacking, no explicit efforts by elected officials to delay the count, no massive election machine failures, and not too many precincts held open late because of long lines of voters. 

We do assume that COVID-19 and its impacts will be widespread this fall. That means tens of millions of American voters are going to vote absentee, by mail and early for the first time, joining the tens of millions who have done so for years. And the county election boards and offices who carry the heavy burdens on election night will not be able to bear up under the load. The hundreds of thousands of Americans counting the votes will try. They will work hard and long, but it will not be enough.  

Why?

As with any national operation, the reasons are many. But the biggest reason is that those with power in the Republican Party — President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — thought it was in their self-interest to duck, cut and run from dealing with the challenge of the coming huge surge in early ballots.

This makes little sense for the GOP. Trump’s tirades against voting by mail undercut two decades of work by Republicans in key states (yes, including Florida) building habits of GOP voters to cast their votes by mail. But it might fit into the GOP’s attempt to reduce voter turnout.

McConnell’s cutting and running is less understandable. 

Calm down, America: If election results aren’t instant, it doesn’t mean they’re ‘rigged’

Counting the votes is a task handled by the states, counties and localities. Over the years, some have been fast and others quite slow. Voting by mail, early voting and absentee voting in huge numbers (there are many variations by state) has been part of this and handled well by some for years. Federal law has mandated since 1986 that military personnel and families overseas have the right to vote absentee, mostly by mail. 

Some states with millions of early votes deliver those totals right when the polls close, as we have seen for the past decade with Texas. Other states, like California, have stumbled and bobbled, taking weeks to count the votes. These differences arise because of major variations in state laws, voting technology and machines by county and even within counties, whether the votes are tallied at the precinct or have to be taken to a central counting location. 

A blue wave could speed things up

This dark forecast might not come to be. For example, should Joe Biden be riding a blue tsunami on Nov. 3, perhaps the data will be unequivocal enough that night for the race to be called. This assumes that the preelection polls show Biden is far ahead and that the data on election night confirms it. Likewise, early calls are possible if preelection polls show Trump far ahead and Election Day data shows him leading in a landslide.  

More realistically, we can expect that the surge in early voting will slow projections by the television networks, The Associated Press, and major newspapers and websites that have sprouted up to call races. News organizations have developed complex statistical models based on voter polls, exit polls, precinct votes and county votes to figure out the winners long before 100% of the vote is counted. Those models depend on patterns of historical votes to some degree. Major changes in the number of early votes and in when these votes are counted mean they could be less reliable.  

Fake news: Trump and Barr are making false claims about mail-in ballots to scare us out of voting

And this analysis does not even touch another major unknown: How many Americans will cast a ballot this fall? Certainly more than the nearly 136.7 million who voted for president in 2016. Some experts say 155 million or more could vote. A spike in turnout makes the projection models less reliable still. And forget about relying on the percentage of vote reporting or the percentage of precincts reporting on Nov. 3. Those may often be misleading. 

In reality, not knowing who won the presidency on the night of Nov. 3 is not a big deal. It is not an indicator of the rigged election President Trump loves to talk about, and it is not an indicator of the establishment cheating, as some on the left said during Democratic presidential primaries.

If not enough votes are counted by midnight Nov. 3 to decide a winner, it is not some nefarious plot. It is what we in the business call a slow count. 

Evans Witt (@EvansWitt), a longtime journalist and pollster, has worked on general election nights for the past 44 years for The Associated Press, PoliticsNow.com and NBC News. Sheldon Gawiser worked for NBC News on general election nights for 52 years and was the longtime director of the NBC News Election unit. They wrote “A Journalist’s Guide to Public Opinion Polls” and many articles on elections and polling.

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