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Election night or election week? Results will come, but maybe not when you want

‘We have to get election night right,’ said ABC News President James Goldston. ‘On the flip side of that, I think what the audience has to expect on that night ... I would use two words: uncertainty and patience.’

A man carries his surf board past a vote sign painted on a wall Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in the Venice Beach section of Los Angeles.
Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

If you’ve scheduled an election night celebration (on Zoom or FaceTime, of course), it might not be a bad idea to start planning on how you might postpone your polling party — or tone down expectations.

With record voter participation expected in this year’s general election, including millions of vote-by-mail ballots, many pollsters and election officials anticipate results from across the nation won’t be tallied before the end of night. But don’t worry, if that happens, many of those same officials say it doesn’t mean something has gone wrong.

There has always been time to count ballots and confirm the results, even after the news outlets have projected their winners and losers. States have their own rules on how long they can take to certify their official election results, but they have to do it before Dec. 8, the “Safe Harbor” date to appoint their Electoral College electors. Those 538 electors will then formally vote for the president on Dec. 14, with the winner receiving at least 270 electoral votes. But, if five weeks isn’t enough, there are already two bills before Congress to extend the Safe Harbor date until Jan. 1, according to the Congressional Research Service. The electoral vote could then happen the following day.

Why a delay?

The most likely reason many Americans won’t know who their newly elected — or reelected — public officials will be Tuesday night is because millions of mail-in ballots have been cast this year to allow people to avoid congregating at polling places during a pandemic.

“Election workers must remove the ballots from their envelopes, check for errors, sort them and flatten them — all before they can be run through scanners the moment polls close and be tabulated,” The Associated Press reported. This process is much slower than counting Election Day in-person ballots.

In some states, including swing states with high electoral college votes at stake like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, election officials had requested more time before Tuesday to count ballots. But state lawmakers have resisted those wishes, the AP reported. The additional time to tally votes in these states — with counting beginning on Nov. 3 or shortly before — could easily delay the announcement of winners and losers for president, senator or county treasurer as well as issues on local ballots.

If the race is close or either of the candidates suspects there has been election interference, recounts or legal battles could also delay confirming official results, even when candidates declare themselves winners.

Already Republicans and Democrats have been squaring off in courts across the nation to determine and contest how voting and the election should be managed during the pandemic.

Latah County Deputy Recorder Alexa Kim sets up voting booths on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, at the Latah County Fairgrounds in Moscow, Idaho.
Geoff Crimmins,The Moscow-Pullman Daily News via Associated Press

On election night, media organizations, like newspapers, cable news channels and The Associated Press, typically make election determinations based on exit polls and early results. But that’s changing this year, and media outlets are expected to be cautious in making those calls.

Social distancing regulations this year will make exit polling — interviewing voters as they leave the polls — more difficult and early results may not paint a complete picture of the voters’ will. As an example, an early results report that only captures in-person voting will not include large numbers of mail-in votes, which this year, will shape many elections across the country.

“We have to get election night right,” said ABC News president James Goldston, during in an interview on an ABC podcast. “On the flip side of that, I think what the audience has to expect on that night ... I would use two words: uncertainty and patience.”

Because of these considerations, the news media — and anxious Americans — will have to scale back expectations of learning final outcomes this year.

Also, just because a candidate declares themselves a winner, that doesn’t make it true.

But some experts believe the presidential race will be ready to call Tuesday night, ultimately relieving days of nail-biting.

“I think the most likely outcome is that we know who the president is on election night,” Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who runs the United State Elections Project, told CBS News. McDonald has successfully predicted the outcome of presidential elections for almost two decades, CBS News reported.

But I’m still biting my nails

If you’re still anxious about Election Day, it might help to know you’re not alone.

A Harris Poll conducted for the American Psychological Association “found that 68% of respondents described the U.S. presidential election as a significant source of stress in their lives, up from 52% four years ago,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

Although getting together in groups may not be a good idea on election night, there are plenty of nonelection television options Tuesday evening. “Jeopardy” starts at 6:30 p.m. MT and for Star Wars fans — or anyone looking for a temporary escape — a new season of the “The Mandalorian” has started.

Eat healthy, get a good night’s sleep and stay active, said American Psychological Association senior director of health care innovation Vaile Wright to NPR. Wright also suggests unplugging and getting some exercise.

“We need to know what’s going on, but we don’t need the late-breaking news every second of the day,” she said. “We know that that connection to our devices ... a constant connection to information, actually drives up our stress levels.”

Maybe now’s the time to get a head start on that New Year’s resolution to get back in shape and to go for a run or a hike.

Vogue magazine also has a collection of advice if your “communications are especially tense” or “you can’t shake that negative feeling.” The magazine suggestions finding socially responsible ways to be around people and to jotting down a few things are grateful for.

And if you haven’t already, go vote!

Voters wait in line to fill out a ballot on the last day of early absentee voting before Tuesday’s general election at the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.
David Goldman, Associated Press