This year's election is going to be messy. Here's what to expect

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Hard as it may be to believe, Election Day is nearly upon us. After nearly four years of President Trump, America has the opportunity — at least in theory — to rid itself of at least Trump himself, although almost certainly not the strains of racism, authoritarianism, and conservative lust for power that led him to the White House in the first place.

Still, given the stakes of this year's presidential election — not to mention the many down-ballot races that will decide the makeup of both chambers of Congress and any number of state legislatures — it's safe to say that come Nov. 3, the nation is going to be a jittery mess, as everyone anxiously reads whatever tea leaves, chicken bones, or dynamic graphic leading the New York Times's website that makes them feel most at ease.

So, to help soothe your pre-election nerves, dear reader, let's take a look at what we should — and shouldn't — expect on Election Day.


To begin with, "election day" is something of a misnomer. By the time Nov. 3 rolls around, 42 states will have already begun some form of early, in-person voting. Just seven states — Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — don't offer this option. (Delaware recently passed an early, in-person voting law, but it doesn't go into effect until 2022).

It's best, then, to think of the first Tuesday in November less as the day to vote, and more as the crescendo of weeks of voting across the country. Nevertheless, the bulk of ballot-casting — albeit perhaps not the outright majority — will take place on Election Day itself.

With that in mind, the big question — perhaps the only question that matters, really — is: "When will we know who won?"

Unfortunately, it seems doubtful that we'll go to bed on Nov. 3 knowing who the next president of the United States will be.

There is always a degree of waiting when it comes to national elections. It's a natural byproduct of different states' staggered poll closing times (in Alaska, polls don't close until the following morning, Eastern Time), how votes are tabulated, and — as was the case in 2016 — whether a candidate concedes in a timely manner. This year, however, those delays will combine with what's expected to be an unprecedented number of both early voting ballots and mail-in ballots. The result will likely be that the nation will have to wait days, or even weeks, until all the votes are tabulated — particularly in states where President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are running close enough to warrant increased scrutiny beyond normal election night modeling.

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So, let's talk mail-in ballots.

Not only do different states have different time frames about how long they'll accept mail-in ballots as part of their early-voting schedule, but they also have different time frames about when those mail-in ballots will be processed and counted. Complicating things even more is the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted some states to pass legislation that alters those time frames even more, but only for this election year.

Take Pennsylvania, for example. Ordinarily, both mail-in ballot processing and the actual counting of votes are allowed to begin at 7 a.m. on Election Day itself (results can't be made public until after the polls close, though.) This year, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that mail-in ballots may also be accepted for counting up until Nov. 6, three after Election Day, so long as they're postmarked before polls close on the 3rd.

Polling averages currently project Biden has around a 5-point lead over Trump in that state. Assuming that margin persists through Election Day itself, a last-minute influx of votes that wouldn't be fully counted until three days later could very well make the difference in the must-win state for both candidates.

A similar situation is brewing in Ohio, where mail-in ballots can be counted up to 10 days after polls close, so long as they were postmarked before Election Day itself — with no interim vote total announced during that 10-day period. We're left then with the possibility that the public might not know who won Ohio, arguably the most important, swingiest swing state of them all, until mid-November.

And that's assuming things go flawlessly.

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The stakes of this election, coupled with the unprecedented circumstances of voting — both in person and by mail — processing, and counting ballots during a cataclysmic pandemic, means that legal observers from both campaigns will be circling the proceedings like vultures, looking for any and every irregularity, discrepancy, or other potential angle with which to move the fight from the voting booth to the court room.

Republicans and Democrats have lawyered up by the thousands in preparation for what they expect will almost certainly be a massive legal battle over election results. Already, there have been around 250 election-related lawsuits filed, with more than a month to go before Election Day itself — a number that is virtually guaranteed to skyrocket come Nov. 3, when legal observers will be out in force. At issue could be everything from poll closing times and voting irregularities to pandemic-related accommodations and voter intimidation, all of which will be carefully tracked and used by each campaign to argue for, or against, counting particular ballots.

In a particularly 2020 twist, one of the major issues voters are now being asked to consider in the election is one which could very well end up ultimately deciding the race itself: the appointment of a conservative justice to the United States Supreme Court to fill the seat vacated by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As Trump himself has admitted, the pursuit of ramming through an 11th-hour Supreme Court nominee is in part to ensure that there is a Republican-friendly majority on the high court in preparation for the potentiality that the election could be decided there, as it essentially was in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

In fact, if Trump's nominee, the ultra-conservative appellate judge Amy Coney Barrett, is confirmed before Election Day, that would make three Supreme Court justices who each worked in some way for the Republicans during the Bush v. Gore legal battle. The question of whether or not Trump can and should appoint a new justice this close to an election could very well morph into whether or not that justice can and should help decide the outcome of the election itself. In preparation for this potential phase of any upcoming legal battle, Democrats are already working on pressuring Barrett to recuse herself from election-related rulings.

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Barring any seismic shake-ups to the race between now and Nov. 3, it seems likely that Election Day will take its cues from the rest of 2020, and drag on interminably. For a country — if not an entire planet — eager to know who the hell is going to be in charge of the United States, sweet relief might not come for days, or even weeks later.

Buckle up folks. It's gonna get wild.