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In Iowa And Nationwide, It Might Take Longer To Know Who Won The Election

Absentee ballot
Grant Gerlock
IPR file
It could take longer than usual to know who won the election this year if the presidential race is close in key battleground states.

Americans have gotten used to knowing who won an election on election night or, at least by the next morning. But election experts say this year could be different, especially if the presidential race is extremely close in key battleground states.

Iowa’s top election official, Secretary of State Paul Pate, has expressed confidence that Iowans will get to see preliminary election results for the state on the night of Nov. 3.

“I plan on getting some rest at some point that night and going to bed,” Pate said. “So our goal is to get this done on election night, but I’m more focused on accuracy than speed.”

Roxanna Moritz, the president of the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, said the “results” voters are used to seeing on election night are never complete, legally binding vote counts.

“I think the public should understand it’s always unofficial results and projections until we actually have the results, which is on the canvass, which is Nov. 10,” Moritz said.

Moritz said county auditors are prepared to execute a “timely and accurate” election process. But she and other county auditors say with the large volume of absentee ballots they're receiving this year, there is a possibility that some preliminary results will not be reported on election night. Those potential delays would be a result of efforts to carefully count all legitimate votes.

This year, county auditors in Iowa are allowed to start processing absentee ballots (checking the signature on the envelope, removing the outer envelope) on Oct. 31, and they can start counting the ballots on Nov. 2.

A ballot scanner breaking down in a county election office could slow down the counting of ballots there. Or a larger county that receives an exceptionally large amount of absentee ballots this year just might not be able to finish counting them by the end of election night.

And in Iowa, absentee ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 2 and arrive at the county elections office by noon on Nov. 9 are counted. In some races that are extremely close, a winner can’t be projected until those ballots are counted.

“We have very close elections almost every election cycle,” Pate said. “People just want to talk about the presidential [race], but we have legislative races that are won and lost by 50 votes.”

The closer a race is, the longer it could take for a winner to be projected based on preliminary results.

National presidential election projections could take longer than usual

Election experts say the timing of preliminary presidential election results will likely depend on how close the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is in key battleground states that have a lot of absentee ballots, and not a lot of time to count them.

“If margins are wide, we might know relatively early that it’s one candidate or the other,” said Derek Muller, a University of Iowa law professor who specializes in election law.

But Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, battleground states that aren’t allowed to start counting absentee ballots until Election Day, may be less likely to have preliminary results on election night because they will need more time to count the votes.

Some other key states like Florida, which was able to start processing absentee ballots on Sept. 24, are in a better position to produce preliminary results on election night. States also have different deadlines, some several days after Election Day, for receiving ballots in the mail.

These factors could mean it will take longer to know who won the presidency. But that does not automatically mean there is a problem with the integrity of the election. Delays are most likely to happen because election officials are taking their time to get an accurate count of all legitimate votes.

There are some concerns that candidates or political parties could seize on any delay in election results to spread disinformation and undermine confidence in the results.

Election officials say that’s why it’s important for Iowans to seek election information from trustworthy sources like local news outlets, and directly from state and local election officials. They say Iowans should try to verify information about the election before sharing it on social media to avoid spreading false information or conspiracy theories.

Pate said his office tries to combat that by educating the public about Iowa’s election system, including through his own social media presence.

“We’re going to do our very best to give you the hard facts and to build trust in the system,” Pate said.

Election experts are also expecting post-Election Day lawsuits to be filed in some states, possibly contesting certain ballots or election procedures.

“A lot of the questions turn on, when you have one jurisdiction where it’s very close, and the outcome in that one jurisdiction defines the whole thing,” Muller said.

Muller said people can sue about anything, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win.

“It’s my anticipation that there might be some litigation after Election Day, depending on how close it is,” Muller said. “I think for the most part, I’m still anticipating a fairly normal, standard election.”

The Electoral College votes are scheduled to be cast Dec. 14, and Inauguration Day for the president is Jan. 20, 2021.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter