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We Have Never Had Final Results on Election Day

For weeks, President Trump and his allies have been laying groundwork to challenge the results of the election if he loses. Now, in the final days of the campaign, he has settled on a blatantly ahistorical closing argument: that the votes in a fair election should not be counted past election night.

“The Election should end on November 3rd., not weeks later!” he tweeted on Friday, two days after telling reporters in Nevada, “Hopefully, the few states remaining that want to take a lot of time after Nov. 3 to count ballots, that won’t be allowed by the various courts.”

“You would think you want to have the votes counted, tabulated, finished by the evening of Nov. 3,” he said at a campaign event a week earlier.

In reality, the scenario Mr. Trump is outlining — every vote in a modern election being “counted, tabulated, finished” by midnight — is not possible and never has been. No state ever reports final results on election night, and no state is legally expected to.

Americans are accustomed to knowing who won on election night because news organizations project winners based on partial counts, not because the counting is actually completed that quickly. These race calls mean Candidate A is far enough ahead that, given the number of outstanding ballots and the regions those ballots are coming from, Candidate B would realistically be unable to close the gap.

The difference this year is not the timing of final results — those will come, as always, by the certification deadlines each state has set, ranging from two days after the election in Delaware to more than a month after in California. The difference, rather, is when news organizations are likely to have enough information to make accurate projections.

If, as Mr. Trump suggested, courts were to force states to stop counting after Nov. 3, it would be an extraordinary subversion of the electoral process and would disenfranchise millions of voters who cast valid, on-time ballots.

Keep up with Election 2020

“Everyone — including Joe Biden, the Democrat Party, the mainstream media and the American public — should want election results they can trust and for every valid ballot to count,” said Thea McDonald, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump’s campaign. “President Trump and Republicans have long fought for these key principles of our democracy, and in many states won, in the fight against Democrats’ attempts to effectively delay Election Day.”

Ms. McDonald pointed to efforts in some states to accept ballots that are received late if they were postmarked by Election Day — or, in some cases, if the postmark is not clear — and said this was “exactly the kind of late ballot counting President Trump has been fighting to prevent.”

But Mr. Trump has explicitly criticized the counting and tabulating of votes past Election Day, something that will happen no matter when the ballot receipt deadline is. Ms. McDonald declined to explain or clarify those statements on the record.

Mail ballots tend to take longer to process than in-person votes, and millions more people are voting by mail this year than ever before because of the pandemic. Because the voters choosing to do this are disproportionately Democrats, neither in-person ballots nor mail ballots will be representative of the full vote count.

And because of the intense confusion around voting rules, more voters than usual may have to cast provisional ballots, meaning election officials will have to verify their eligibility before counting their votes.

In some states — like Colorado, which has been conducting elections by mail for years, or Florida, which allows officials to begin processing mail-in ballots before Election Day — it may still be possible to call winners on election night, depending on how close the races are.

But in many other states — including the all-important Pennsylvania, where some counties will not begin counting mail-in ballots until Nov. 4 because of limited resources — it could take several days to get an accurate picture.

If this happens, it will be evidence not of a conspiracy but of the electoral system working as it should, by counting every vote. And while much about this year’s election is abnormal, delayed results would not be. Even in the smoothest elections, we don’t necessarily get quick calls in close races.

On election night in 2018, it wasn’t clear who had won governor’s races in Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin; Senate races in Arizona and Florida; and a slew of House races in California, Georgia, New York, Texas and Utah. While there were recounts and legal disputes in a handful of these races, the uncertainty in most places had nothing to do with changing or challenging the counts — it just took time to finish counting.

If the tallies had been frozen at midnight, even many in-person votes would not have been counted. And the ballots tallied after Election Day did not uniformly benefit one party.

In Minnesota’s First Congressional District, for instance, they benefited the Republican candidate, Jim Hagedorn, who was ahead by fewer than 100 votes just after midnight but ended up winning by about 1,300 votes. In California’s 21st Congressional District, they benefited the Democratic candidate, T.J. Cox, who appeared to be losing on election night but ended up winning by about 850 votes.

When we talk about delayed results, it is easy to think of a nightmare scenario like the 2000 presidential election in Florida: a race close enough to trigger a recount, in a tipping-point state, with clear ballot irregularities that can’t easily be resolved, ultimately decided not by the count but by the courts.

But most of the time, the circumstances are much more anodyne, and the results are finalized with no serious questions about their legitimacy.

Few people are likely to remember that it took two weeks to call Missouri for John McCain in 2008, because the election didn’t hinge on the outcome. When the state finally was called on Nov. 19, by a margin of about 0.1 percent, The New York Times reported simply, “The Missouri secretary of state’s office had been waiting for some jurisdictions to examine thousands of provisional ballots and certify and mail in their totals.”

In 2012, it took four days to call Florida for President Barack Obama — and again it was not particularly memorable, because he had already won re-election without the state. While there were plenty of recriminations about how long the counting took, the results themselves were not disputed.

Four years later, Michigan counted ballots for more than two weeks after the Nov. 8 election before delivering Mr. Trump one of his most cherished victories.

“The Great State of Michigan was just certified as a Trump WIN,” he tweeted after that, “giving all of our MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN supporters another victory — 306!”

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