In recent years, Election Night in America has become a lot like New Year’s Eve. Bars, restaurants and hotel ballrooms fill up with revelers; colleges host watch parties; kids beg their parents to stay up late. And everywhere, people tune into election-night coverage. In 2016, more than 71 million Americans watched the returns come in in real time, about twice as many as watched the ball drop in Times Square.
This year the entertainment factor will be compromised. The munching of red, white and blue tortilla chips is still permitted, but this is no time to be crowding into bars and parties. And there’s another potential downer: Delays in counting the votes could mean the evening ends in frustration for both sides.
That would be a pity — but there’d be no need to call it a crisis.
Even if one candidate handily wins the popular vote and the Electoral College, it could take days or weeks to know it. Take Pennsylvania, which went narrowly for Trump in 2016. Some 2.4 million voters there have already cast ballots, thanks to this year’s unprecedented expansion of voting by mail. According to state law, none can be processed before Tuesday, when officials will be busy running in-person operations.
Many other states have seen a massive expansion of early voting. More than 93 million Americans have already cast their ballots, and every state has its own rules for counting them. New Jersey officials got a 10-day head start; Wisconsin officials will begin counting tomorrow; in Michigan, even unofficial results might not be available until Friday. Expecting mail slowdowns, some states will accept postmarked ballots that arrive weeks after Election Day. And as results do trickle out tomorrow night, early returns could skew red or blue, depending on states’ ballot-counting methods.
So be it. In this year’s extraordinary circumstances, votes will take longer than usual to count, and close races might not be called promptly. The delays are unfortunate, but what matters is accuracy. The president was wrong to say that it would be “totally inappropriate” to tally ballots for two weeks after Election Day, if that’s how long it takes to count them. Note, as well, that valid ballots processed after Election Day can’t reverse the electors’ verdict, as some suggest: Until they’re counted, there is no verdict.
Admittedly, voters in most other rich countries are puzzled that the U.S. finds counting votes so taxing. And after the hanging-chads fiasco of 2000 — a protracted muddle that led many voters to call the result of that election illegitimate — it’s shocking that voting systems weren’t brought up to the standards expected elsewhere. The fact is, they weren’t, and the coronavirus crisis then made matters worse. That means delay, which in turn demands patience.
It might take the edge off the evening, but there’s no need for alarm. Just count the votes.- Bloomberg