Tuesday, November 8 marks the first day of the general election since Donald Trump attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential race.
Millions of Americans will have already cast their ballots, either by mail or in person, and millions more will show up to do so in person. These votes are being cast at a time when the American electoral system has come under attack like never before.
We may not know the winner of key races until later in the week. That’s normal. Still, there is great fear that several candidates who have cast doubt on the 2020 election will use this period of uncertainty to question the integrity of the 2022 results.
Here’s a guide to what to look out for on Election Day and the days and weeks after.
We probably won’t know the winners on election night.
In many races, we won’t know who won on election night. After the polls close, candidate vote totals are likely to change as local officials continue to count ballots.
“It’s very likely that we will know virtually nothing on election night, and that’s normal,” said David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Research and Innovation. Only with wide margins or data like exit polls do people find out the results the same day.
Once the polls close, poll workers tabulate votes in each precinct and transmit them to the county central election office. Each county reports its results to the state. In many cases, both the county and the state provide regular overnight updates online as results are reported. Counties also continue to process mail-in ballots.
Vote totals are likely to change throughout the night, as well as in the days after Election Day as votes continue to be counted. That change is not unusual and can be explained by two dynamics, said Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT who specializes in electoral management.
First, he said, the places that report their votes first tend to be smaller Republican jurisdictions. Second, many places report your vote in person on Election Day first, and then your absentee vote by mail. Those votes tend to lean toward Democrats.
“Larger jurisdictions also tend to be more democratic. Therefore, they tend to have more absentee and mail-in ballots. You’re getting both dynamics to push in the same way, which then leads to what seems like this big rush of Democratic votes being counted at the end,” he said.
Because these totals can change, there must be deep skepticism about attempts to claim victory before the votes are counted.
Projections of which candidates will win are separate from the official results.
As officials report the election results, news organizations, including the Associated Press and the major television networks scrutinize the data to try to make projections about which candidate will win. This process is separate from official electoral efforts to count votes.
News organizations use a team of independent experts who use polls, past voting data, and the results of upcoming elections to tell the public who is going to win a race.
In some races, experts can quickly make a projection about who is going to win a race. If a party’s candidate has consistently won a race, for example, and voting patterns on election night seem immediately in line with previous elections, news organizations can rely on making a projection with only a fraction of the votes counted.
But in competitive races where there is a narrow margin between the candidates and many of the votes are yet to be reported, pundits are much more cautious and don’t make predictions. As the vote count continues, forecasters compare the margin that separates the candidate to where in the state votes are still pending.
Once they feel confident that there is no path to victory for a candidate, they will declare a winner.
The scrutiny and certification deadlines help ensure that the votes add up
After Election Day, there are two key deadlines, different in each state, in the vote counting process. The first is the date by which each county in the state must complete a canvass of the election results and approve them.
This process, overseen by members of both parties, is designed to detect any irregularities in the count and ensure that everything adds up. Once all the votes are counted, the county approves the results and sends them to the state, which reviews the results again. Procedures vary in different states, but this is also the period in which candidates can qualify or request a recount.
In 2020, Trump and his allies focused on the canvassing process as part of an effort to extend the vote count. There is concern that this could happen again this year, but experts say the law makes it clear that officials cannot simply refuse to certify an election without a strong justification that can hold up in court.
“Obviously that is really concerning if there are officials who are willing to violate their oath and the laws of their state and refuse to certify results that may be contrary to their own personal political philosophy, but where there is no evidence to suggest that something it was bad . That’s a real problem,” Becker said. “On the other hand, we have faced this problem before and so far it has been handled quite well.
“But if it happens enough and it creates a period of uncertainty in the process, which I think is the goal of the election deniers, it creates an environment for violence,” he added.
There will likely be long lines at the polls in some places
The polls in each state generally open and close at the same time. It is not uncommon to see lines at the polls first thing in the morning. Voters often line up before the polls open first thing in the morning to be among the first people to cast their ballot on Election Day. It’s also not uncommon for early polling place failures: equipment may not be delivered on time, a machine may break, voter registration software may not work right away.
“These things happen and they are normal. They are not signs of generalized dysfunction,” Becker said. “We have almost a million polling places in the United States for an election like this. Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was no problem in any of them?
Election officials can usually resolve these issues quickly, but sometimes they can take longer in the day. If the start of voting is delayed, candidates and political parties will often petition the courts to extend voting hours.
States have different voting requirements
Each state has its own set of procedures for voting on Election Day, including where people can vote, whether they can register to vote at the polls, and what type of identification they must present.
Those rules may differ from what was allowed during early voting. In Georgia, for example, a voter can vote at any of her county’s polling places during early voting, but must cast her ballot in an assigned precinct on Election Day. In North Carolina, voters can register at the polls during early voting, but not on Election Day.
Those planning to vote on Election Day should check with state and local officials about where they are allowed to vote and what to bring to vote.
Some will claim they see election errors (and most will turn out to be false)
Every election day, voters report seeing something wrong at the polls or during the vote counting process. In 2020, Donald Trump loudly amplified many of those claims and they live on today, even though they have been debunked time and time again.
In 2022, we are likely to hear similar claims. Each of them should be taken with “a large grain of salt,” Becker said. “I would view any claim by anyone who says that, regardless of party of choice, with a great deal of skepticism.
“These things are largely driven by losing candidates or candidates hoping to lose,” he added. Claims, she said, “are almost always proven false. Or easily explainable.”
In 2020, for example, there were observer complaints about ballots brought to a central counting facility in Detroit late on election night. Those ballots had has already been verified by the local election office and there was nothing wrong with being late. However, the claim was promoted by those seeking to cast doubt on the election results.
“It’s kind of a fog of war point. There are always things that happen during the counting mix-up that you don’t quite understand. But there are trained people running elections who are prepared for this kind of thing,” Stewart said.
This year more citizens could try to challenge other voters
In many places, voters can challenge the eligibility of someone who shows up at the polls if they have reason to believe the person is not qualified to vote in that jurisdiction.
There is increased concern about these kinds of electoral challenges this year due to orchestrated efforts to recruit people who have doubts about the 2020 election to work the polls. If a voter is challenged, there are specific procedures that poll workers must follow to deal with a challenged voter.
In some ways, however, talk of widespread electoral challenges is not new.
“There is always talk that there will be an army of challengers and observers ready to go. And in past elections that never materialized,” he said. “There are people who think that if fewer people vote, that’s a good thing. And they want some people to self-repress. They want people to think that voting is going to be dangerous. Or difficult. And that they are going to have to walk a challenge to get into the polling place. A gauntlet of hostile forces.
Still, he said, widespread challenges need to be closely monitored.
“We’re going to have to stay on top of that,” Becker said. “Clearly, the forces of election denial have been very active and continue to be very strong in spreading lies and disinformation. And there may be people who have bought that information who are inclined to disrupt polling places.
“In my conversations with election officials, I think a lot of them have planned for this, prepared for this, and included it in training. I think that’s good. I don’t know if it will spread or not.”