PSA: We may not know who won on election night, and that’s okay
The 2022 midterm elections will be held on Tuesday, November 8, and in some states, it may take extra time to know who won. Whether due to competitive races, nuances in election law, changes to the tabulation process or other factors, we may not know the winner of some of these races on election night. For others, we may not know until weeks after the fact. This shouldn’t cause panic or conspiracies—it’s normal. We should be patient and trust that the ballots are being counted fairly and accurately.
In fact, no state has ever declared a winner on election night. Media outlets project winners based on reported votes, but these results are unofficial and all states take days or even weeks to tabulate ballots before officially certifying the winners. This time is necessary to ensure a fair and accurate count.
Consider some of our recent elections. In 2020, the expansion of mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania slowed the ballot tabulation process and created a delay in determining whether Joe Biden or Donald J. Trump carried the state. At the same time, both Senate seats in Georgia were extremely close and required a subsequent runoff weeks later. More recently, in the special election to fill the vacancy left by the passing of Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), Alaska held an instant runoff election, a process which required two weeks for all ballots to be collected before declaring a winner. Nothing went wrong in any of these instances, nor were the outcomes unfair.
All of these variables, as well as others, may impact some of the 2022 midterms. It should not be surprising if the results of some races are still unclear on election night or even days after the fact. Tabulating millions of ballots takes time, and accuracy is more important than speed. Election officials work tirelessly to produce results as quickly as possible, but with so many competitive races and the control of Congress at stake, making sure that each eligible ballot is counted correctly will always take time. Furthermore, with such potentially narrow margins, some states may require a recount, which will extend the time needed to determine the winner.
Given these factors, here are five Senate races and a brief explanation as to why they may not be decided on the night of the election.
Alaska is employing their Final Four system for the first time in a Senate election. Though the race is rated as “Solid Republican,” there are four candidates on the ballot, and one of them needs to receive a majority in order to win. In order to avoid a runoff election, Alaska employs ranked-choice voting to conduct an instant runoff. Here, voters rank the candidates in order of their preference. If no one receives more than 50 percent after the initial tabulation, the last place candidate is dropped, and those who ranked that candidate first have their vote reallocated to their second choice. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority.
Some instant runoff elections like these take time to determine the winner, but that is not inherently necessary. Alaska must also wait for absentee ballots to come in before tabulation can begin. Absentee ballots in Alaska must be postmarked by Election Day but can be received up to 10 days later. Nearly 20,000 people voted by mail in the August election, and that number is likely to be greater in the general.
In Arizona, absentee ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Election Day, and the state does not employ any sort of runoffs. However, polling for the Senate race has the Democratic incumbent ahead by just 3.5 points. With such a narrow margin, more time may be required to determine a winner. In fact, the race will automatically require a recount if the margin is 0.5 percent or less. And while the state on the whole prioritizes efficiency, allowing the pre-processing of mail-in ballots and enforcing strict deadlines, one Arizona county may slow down the entire state with its decision to hand count ballots.
Taken together, delays from hand counting ballots, a competitive race and the potential for a recount could mean Arizona isn’t decided on election night or in the immediate aftermath.
Georgia’s Senate election is rated a toss-up between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker with Warnock currently enjoying a 1.7-point lead in polling averages. Most notable about Georgia among the competitive Senate races is the state’s use of runoff elections. If no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the votes on Election Day, another election is held on December 6 between the top two vote-getters. With a tight race and third-party candidate on the ballot, this race appears likely to head for a runoff election.
The state does not have an automatic recount, but a candidate can request a recount if the margin is 0.5 percent or less. Furthermore, an election official or the secretary of state can ask for a recount if they suspect some error or discrepancy. The candidate must do so within two business days of the election being certified. Results are to be certified by 5 p.m. on the second Friday after an election is held. State law does not specify a deadline for the completion of a recount. Therefore, if the election goes to a runoff and ultimately requires a recount, we may not know the winner of this race until mid-December at the earliest.
Nevada’s Senate election is currently a virtual tie as the Republican candidate has a mere 0.4-point lead in polling averages and the race is rated a toss-up. As such, this race could be decided by the narrowest of margins. Importantly, Nevada will send all eligible voters a mail-in ballot that must be postmarked by Election Day and received by 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 12. In such a close race, these ballots may ultimately determine the outcome.
Additionally, as in Arizona, one county will be hand counting ballots, which could delay the tabulation process. Furthermore, any defeated candidate may request a recount regardless of the difference in vote shares. Collectively, it seems highly unlikely that the Nevada contest will be resolved on Election Day. In fact, it seems likely that a winner won’t be determined for a few days or perhaps even weeks after the polls close.
This Senate race is rated a toss-up and the Democratic candidate has a 1-point lead in polling averages, but his lead has steadily been shrinking in recent weeks. While the Republican candidate was down six points in early October, the trajectory suggests a near tie by Election Day. This narrow margin could make projecting a winner on election night difficult, if not impossible.
Just like in 2020, many Pennsylvania voters have chosen to cast their ballots by mail. More than half a million such ballots were cast two weeks before Election Day. However, also like 2020, these ballots cannot be processed before Election Day. Before mail ballots can be counted, election administrators must first determine voter eligibility, remove ballots from envelopes and then prepare the ballots for tabulation. In order to ensure that every valid vote counts, ballots that were damaged in transit must be re-created so they can be scanned appropriately. For millions of ballots, this takes time.
Furthermore, a recount is automatically held if the winning margin is 0.5 percent or less. The recount must then be completed by November 29. It may then take weeks to determine the winner of this election.
Trust the process
These aren’t the only states that could experience delays, but they demonstrate that we should not reasonably expect to know every winner on election night. And all states, regardless of the nuances of their procedures, will be counting and certifying results in the days and weeks after election night.
Americans—and commentators especially—should exercise patience and understand that trustworthy elections take time, and anxious voters should watch out for the misinformation and conspiracy theories that proliferate while results are still uncertain. Americans of all ideologies should avoid knee-jerk, partisan reactions to outcomes and maintain confidence in the integrity of our elections. A fair and accurate count is well worth the wait.
Image credit: vchal