Voting in 2020 will look like no other election in recent memory. Here’s a preview of what will be different, what will largely be the same, and what to expect in the weeks leading up to and following the election.
What can I expect if I vote on Election Day?
Heavy turnout is predicted this year. Expect long lines at some polling locations, particularly in cities. Even though election officials are encouraging voters to cast their ballots at early-voting sites or by mail, some people prefer the tradition of exercising their right to vote on Election Day. Others fear their votes will not be counted if they vote by mail. And still others will inevitably put off voting until the last minute.
If you live in a presidential swing state, there’s a good chance you may see extra poll watchers sent by each party to monitor voting. Also, if you haven’t voted since the coronavirus pandemic started, you’ll probably notice new safety precautions — requirements that voters line up six feet apart, extra space between voting machines, plastic shields protecting poll workers and lots of hand sanitizer.
At some locations, you’ll receive your own pen so germs can’t be spread from one voter to another.
What are officials doing to reduce lines at polling places?
It is a monumental effort. The vast expansion of voting by mail across the country is primarily meant to allow people to vote safely from their homes, but it could also help alleviate crowding at some polling locations.
In Kentucky’s primary this year, for example, it allowed counties to reduce the number of polling locations significantly without creating many long lines.
Counties have also expanded early in-person voting, which helps diminish crowds by spreading them out across days or weeks. There’s also been a national effort to recruit hundreds of thousands of poll workers to make sure voting locations aren’t forced to close because of shortages of workers during the pandemic.
I want to vote by mail. Will I get my ballot on time?
Unfortunately, some ballots sent out during states’ primary elections arrived late, making it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for people to vote. Officials expect that postal delays may occur again, so try to request your ballot as soon as possible.
There’s also a chance that marked ballots sent back to election offices will not be received in time, so mail your ballot well before the deadline. If you don’t get a ballot on time, there’s still the option of voting in person on Election Day. (Tell the poll worker what happened. You may be given a provisional ballot.)
Some states are making last-minute changes to deadlines to alleviate problems. In Michigan, a judge cited mail delays when she granted a two-week deadline extension for clerks to receive marked ballots after Election Day — for this election only. North Carolina officials, also worried about mail delays, extended the deadline for mailed ballots to be received to Nov. 12, from Nov. 6. Be sure to check postmark deadlines in your state.
Could my vote be challenged or rejected?
This year, most states will let you track the status of your mail-in ballot online. If it is marked as rejected before Election Day, you can go to an election office and, at the very least, cast a provisional ballot. Provisional ballots are kept separate from the rest of the ballots until an election official can determine whether the voter was eligible to vote. This normally happens after the election.
If your absentee ballot is rejected after the election, you could be out of luck if you’re not in a state that allows for ballot “curing,” or the ability to come in and address the issue that caused the rejection. Roughly 20 states mandate some type of curing procedure for absentee ballots; in several other states, lawsuits have been filed seeking to add a curing procedure.
About 2 percent of mail ballots were rejected in this year’s primary elections, according to data collected from 24 states by Michael McDonald, a voter turnout expert at the University of Florida.
In absentee voting for the general election so far, an analysis of North Carolina ballots found that Black and Hispanic voters’ ballots were more likely than white voters’ ballots to be denied because of incomplete witness information.
Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College who conducted the analysis, said the discrepancy could be related to the fact that many voters are using mail ballots for the first time. He pointed out that the voters still have a chance to correct their ballots.
If you vote in person and your voter registration is misplaced or your photo identification is challenged, voting rights groups say you should fight the challenge yourself by calling state election officials or nonpartisan election help hotlines. Some states also offer an affidavit for voters to fill out that, if accepted by an election judge, will allow them to cast a regular ballot.
Should all else fail, a provision in the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires that all states provide the option for a voter to fill out a provisional ballot if problems arise at the polling place.
Once we’re done voting, who will declare the winner?
The winner of an election isn’t officially determined on election night, but news organizations traditionally announce the projected winners based on vote totals, information gleaned from telephone, online and exit poll survey results, and historical voting patterns — time-tested methods that have proved in the past to be very accurate.
In the past three presidential elections, these unofficial projections were made before midnight on the West Coast. The 2004 presidential election was called the next day. In 2000, the results weren’t known until December, after some confusing election night pronouncements. The outcome in Florida was too close to call, which led to a controversial recount that was eventually halted by the Supreme Court. At that point, George W. Bush won the state by 537 votes, allowing him to capture the White House.
In announcing the winners, The New York Times and many other news organizations rely heavily on decisions by The Associated Press, which has staff members and contractors in each state who report votes as they are counted. Those reports are then funneled to The A.P.’s election experts, who use them, along with poll numbers, to project the winners.
A consortium called the National Election Pool, which includes the networks ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, performs a similar data collection function. The networks use this data to make their own projections. Fox News will use The A.P.’s data and make its own calls.
Will we know who the winner is on election night?
Counting absentee ballots takes longer, as they have to be manually opened, inspected, processed and then tabulated. So, from the outset, a surge in absentee ballots creates much more work for already understaffed election offices.
And in some key states — including Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — election officials are not allowed to even begin the process until Election Day. That means millions of ballots will simply pile up beforehand, and then, on the busiest day of the year, officials will finally open them and start the work. This will be a major source of delay: In the June primary, Philadelphia officials were still counting ballots for a week after the election.
These kinds of delays in some of the states most likely to decide the election may make it impossible to call a winner quickly.
When will the election officially be decided?
Members of the Electoral College will meet in each state on Dec. 14 to cast their formal votes for president. The electors are chosen based on certified election results from state election officials.
The winner of the presidency won’t be truly official until Jan. 6 — that’s when a joint session of Congress is scheduled to meet in a largely ceremonial count of the Electoral College results.