“We Used to Know on Election Night!”
Well, kind of, but not really.
To partially bring forward a conversation that James Joyner started, I keep thinking about people being impatient about the election results. There is a combination of nostalgia for the good ol’ days (which, like all nostalgia, is rooted in imperfect memories) and the stoking of fears, by Trump and his allies, in particular, that lack of immediate results means that something fishy is going one (especially if Republicans appear to be winning and then go on to lose).
Let me state from the jump that there is only so much that can be done in terms of tightening procedures to address the problem of political leaders telling lies to their followers. Even if you find a way to speed up the process (which, don’t get me wrong, I favor as a general principle) that won’t stop those who seek to poison minds from their toxic behaviors.
To be honest, I see a lot of people who are just flat impatient (a trait that I understand). After all, we want to know the results now! The fact that the new congress isn’t seated until January doesn’t enter into it, we just want to know the final score of the game/how the show ends.
I mean, it’s been days!
The real villains in all of these are two things most people don’t want to talk about: math and bureaucratic processes.
The most fundamental problem is math. What is the gap between the leading and trailing candidates and the number of available votes needed to close that gap? There is then the simple question of whether the votes from the encounter area are more likely to favor one party or the other. And even then there is some degree of uncertainty.
While this is a pretty straightforward concept, it requires people to think about numbers (which a lot of people don’t like to do) and worse it requires things like understanding how estimations might be made in this context and, worse, some understanding of probability. One thing that is clear, even a lot of educated people have a hard time understanding probability when they have rooting interests (see, e.g., the reaction of a lot of folks when Trump won in 2016–how could that have happened when he only had a 35% chance?).*
Worse, people, in general, seem not to fully grasp that different kinds of voters live in different places (i.e., there are likely to be more Democrats in cities) and that not all counties have the same population size.
The other part of this equation is procedures. When are mail-in ballots due? When can election officials start preparing to count them? When can they start counting them? What are the processes that voters have to abide to vote? What are the processes to verify each ballot? What’s the curing process? And so forth.
Let me return two quotes that James cited from David Becker:
No state, in the history of the United States, has counted all of its ballots on “Election Night.”
This is utterly true and needs emphasizing. Speaking as someone who often needs final vote tallies for academic research purposes, it can take a very long time to get truly final results (this is true in other countries as well). Further, the only reason that it often seems like it is all taken care of on election night is that, a) the margin between the first-place vote-getter and the second-place vote-getter is deemed mathematically impossible to surmount, and b) the second-place vote-getter concedes.
As many people learned watching Donald Trump, the concession has no legal bearing, even though we treat it like a formal part of the process.
Back to Becker:
We have never truly “known” who won an election on election night. We only think we know, based on large margins, exit polls, and ballots counted to that point. But we only truly know who won when official results are certified — weeks later.
I would emphasize “we only think we know.” Again: network calls are not legally binding nor are concessions.
I would also stress that the main reason we can have unofficial knowledge on election night (or soon thereafter) is largely because of margin of victory. The more competitive a contest is, the less likely we will know the results immediately. And yes, mail-in balloting makes this more complicated.
And while it is my understanding that Florida has superior processes to process mail-in ballots to those in Florida and Arizona, the main reason we knew Florida’s results so quickly is that DeSantis and Rubio won re-election by huge margins (~19 points for DeSantis and ~17 for Rubio). If the margin was less than 0.1%, as is the case currently in the Nevada Senate race, we might still be counting in Florida as well.
We had situations like this in the past, such as Al Franken having to wait on a recount in Minnesota in 2008 elections. I would note that control of the Senate was not dependent on this seat, and so did not have as much of the drama as current contests have. (Indeed, if Cortez Masto wins the NV seat, the GA run-off will lose some of its drama–which will be well past 11 if Senate control hinges on the outcome).
I would note, too, that control of the Senate came down to a run-off in Georgia way back in [checks notes] 2020.
Some things have changed in recent years. There are more vote-by-mail states, which does slow things down. The country is more polarized and so each seat tends to really matter. And, sadly, some significant numbers of politicians want to use slowness as a reason to cast doubt. (The instantaneous world of social media doesn’t help–not to mention that the constant drumbeat on TV makes it seem oh so very urgent). Indeed, on the point of the media: the TV folks are incentivized to turn all of this into high drama, instead of what it really is: a slow bureaucratic process. Worse, online everyone’s hair is on fire because that is what political junkies do, especially when the product is so pure. Put that next vote count update straight into my veins, dontcha know!
Back to the boring: it would be nice if we could, as a nation, agree (as James noted in his post) on standardized practices for voting and vote counting. But not only is that just not sexy, but the reality is also that the parties don’t agree that this is a public good. Republicans have been convinced that vote-by-mail is pro-Democratic (BTW, studies show that it isn’t) and worse, they tend to believe that making it easier to vote is pro-Democratic (which also may not be true). It is shame that there isn’t a national consensus on being pro-democratic (note the small “d”).
*Or whatever it was in the final 538 model. Or, people who say “the weatherman said there was an 80% of rain and it didn’t rain! They don’t know what they are talking about!”