With historically high mail-in and early voting this year, many Americans are concerned about delayed election results.
Paul Helmke, a professor of practice at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, said all scenarios will depend on how close the elections are. Close elections will likely see delayed results and recounts, but in Indiana, there aren’t many races expected to be tight.
When can Indiana voters expect to see results?
Election results are never final on election night. County clerks in Indiana do not submit their final results until 10 days after the election to allow for all overseas military votes postmarked by Election Day to be counted.
But projected results are often called within an hour of the polls closing. Based on exit polling and initial results from early precincts and counties, solid projections are often possible within a few minutes of the polls closing, just like in any other election.
“There might be some people who can give some sort of preliminary predictions of what Indiana’s going to do by 6:30, but those are their guesses,” Helmke said. “And this is a year where I’d be reluctant to guess too quickly, just because there’s so many absentee votes.”
Even so, he predicted preliminary Indiana projections could be out around 7 p.m. on Election Day.
Monroe County Clerk Nicole Browne said in an email that results will not be available on election night because of the unprecedented number of early voting numbers and mail-in ballots.
“In years past, we were able to produce numbers on election night,” she said. “That will not be the case this time.”
In an interview at the start of early voting, Browne asked Monroe County voters for patience. “Accuracy is more important than speed,” she said. “I hope that’s true across the nation, but unfortunately I can only be responsible for Monroe County.”
Helmke said a lot of the time, the winner isn’t clear on election night. This is especially true if the presidential race comes down to one state or a handful of close states, which he sees as a possibility. He pointed to the 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000 and 2004 presidential elections and a number of state and local elections in Indiana history as examples.
What about all the absentee ballots and early voting?
Helmke said early in-person votes will be counted right away, and early in-person voting saw a much larger uptick than by-mail voting in Indiana.
“When the polls close at 6 o’clock, you’ll have everybody who voted on Tuesday and you’ll have everybody who voted in person,” he said.
Mail-in votes will take longer to count, but that might not actually delay the ability to call races, Helmke said. Once one candidate’s lead in a given race is large enough, the race can be called even before all the votes have been counted, which is how all modern elections have been covered.
All absentee votes will be counted before the final results are certified, but media projections can be called much earlier. “At a certain stage, [a candidate] would almost have to get 100% of the absentees to change the results, and you know that’s not going to happen,” Helmke said.
What about national results?
Helmke said national results could be available on election night depending on the results in key states. If Florida, North Carolina or Georgia flip for former Vice President Joe Biden, Helmke said, media outlets would likely be able to call the race on election night. The winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College makes it easier to call elections because the winner can be declared before all votes are counted if a candidate has a sizable enough lead in key states, he said.
However, if the race comes down to Pennsylvania, the results could be delayed significantly because of how slowly the ballots are counted in that state. He also said close races in a number of key states could delay the results.
“The main thing is, none of these results on Election Day are official,” Helmke said.
Any election night results are media projections based on exit polls and careful analysis, but they are still projections.
“So anybody who says ‘I won on Election Day and then the votes later took it away from me,’ that’s not true. You never win on Election Day,” Helmke said.