When the Election Results Are Official

We’ve wasted thousands of hours the past four years repeating and correcting the lies and stupidities of You Know Who. But along the way there’s been some educational value. Here’s an example from The Washington Post [with my commentary in italics]:

President Txxxx is ramping up his attacks on mail-in voting by insisting election results “must” be known on election night. “No more big election night answers?” he tweeted last month. “Ridiculous! Just a formula for RIGGING an Election . . .”

The news media have pushed back on his baseless claims of fraud. But they agree with him on one point: There is likely to be a “delay” in election results because of a surge in mail-in votes.

But that’s wrong. If results aren’t known on election night, that doesn’t mean there’s a delay. The fact is, there are never official results on election night. There never have been.

Predictions of a delay rest on a misunderstanding of the vote-counting process . . . If election-night results are considered the norm, and what happens this year is described as a “delay,” it will be easy to paint the result as problematic — and for Txxxx to continue to spread suspicions about the entire process.

Concerns about a supposed delay stem from a coronavirus-fueled interest in absentee and mail-in ballots. . . . Counting [all of] those ballots could potentially take days or weeks . . .

Yet even if [the final count] takes several weeks, that wouldn’t constitute a delay — because by law, election results aren’t official until more than a month after the election. The 12th Amendment and the accompanying Electoral Count Act of 1887 give states five weeks — this year, until Dec. 8 — to count their popular votes. That tally determines each state’s presidential electors, who cast their state’s votes six days later, on Dec. 14. Only if states miss that December deadline would election results be genuinely late.

That means all of us — politicians, the media, pundits and voters in general — need to reorient our thinking. The election is officially decided in December, not in November. There is nothing pernicious, or even unusual, about this. The only problem is one of perception.

The misperception isn’t surprising. We’ve come to expect that the media will announce the winner on election night. After all, that’s been the case for more than six decades. News outlets often report the results calculated by research groups or the Associated Press, which collect returns from individual precincts and add them up.

It’s essential for us to get this right. If we do not, we give ammunition to those who would undermine democracy by willfully [and/or foolishly] getting it wrong.

But the media results are projections based on preliminary returns rather than a certified final number. In previous years, that has been a distinction without a difference, since there was virtually no daylight between news media projections and actual results. One notable exception was the 2000 presidential election, when confusion over the Florida vote ended with the Supreme Court declaring George W. Bush the winner over Al Gore.

. . . Since 2000, Democrats have done better as later ballots are counted — the “blue shift” first identified in a 2013 paper by one of us, Edward Foley — which could significantly impact results. Hypothetically, Txxxx could be winning on election night [although he won’t be] . . . . and claim he has enough electoral college votes to declare victory. Yet after all votes are counted, Joe Biden could be [will be] the actual winner. Txxxx has been pushing the false narrative that any change after election night is fraudulent. That is unequivocally not the case. . . .


I don’t think it’s going to be a close election. The result will be reasonably clear on election night (technically, by early the next morning). But it’s good to be prepared when people who don’t know or care what they’re talking about start talking.