‘Election Night’ Is an Outdated and Dangerous Relic of the Past

The rise of early voting has eroded “Election Day,” and slow mail-ballot counts have eroded “Election Night.” Photo: George Frey/Getty Images

Traditionally, for people involved in electoral politics, Election Day is Judgment Day, when all those strenuous efforts to win (or in the case of media and academic folk, to report on or analyze) public office come to an end as the last poll closes. Election Night, accordingly, is in all but a few rare cases the time when the judgment of the people is discerned. Political people are wired from an early age to think of Election Day and Election Night as the key moments of drama in their often tedious profession.

But the old dramatic cycle is making less sense every day. With the advent of early voting, Election Day often stretches over weeks. And with slow counts caused by mail and provisional ballots becoming more prevalent, Election Night isn’t always what it used to be, either.

It will be a while before the final numbers are available, but early voting has been regularly increasing in the last 20 years. In 2016, 42 percent of the vote was cast before Election Day, either by mail or in person, and early voting represented over half the vote in 16 states, including such big states as California, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. While “windows” for early voting vary by state and by type of voting, 20 states had opened up early voting by October 15 this year — three weeks before Election Day.

Campaigns, of course, understand this sea change in when ballots are cast, and have adjusted advertising and get-out-the-vote strategies accordingly. And while the news media are attentive — perhaps overattentive — to the possibility that they can divine horse-race odds from early-voting patterns, the more basic and incontrovertible fact that elections are no longer one-day events is often ignored. The old habits are hard to shake: I’ve been writing about early voting for years, but still tend to write about Election Day as though it’s Christmas and New Year’s Day all wrapped up in one glorious moment.

The mystique of Election Night — which belongs mostly to media rather than campaigns and politicians — is even more deep-seated.

In his classic book The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White supplied a classic take on the rhythms of Election Day and Night, from those first few ballots cast at midnight in an obscure New Hampshire hamlet, to the predictable march of results as voting ends:

If the Democrats are going to win, they must have a healthy margin of several million votes by midnight. After midnight the tide reverses itself as the farm states, the mountain states, the Pacific Coast, all begin to check in with their traditionally Republican tallies. Thus the profile that repeats itself every four years and creates the arbitrary drama of election night: the afternoon and early-evening trickle of Republican votes, the Democratic tide from the big cities between eight and midnight and then, after midnight, the Republican counterassault.

While the map has changed since 1960, the idea that Election Night represents a climactic drama hasn’t. Yes, we’ve learned to be wary of early projections, as illustrated by 2000’s reversed calls of Florida and Gore’s reversed concession; 2004’s messed-up exit polls showing a Kerry victory wiped out by a red tide of Bush wins; and most recently, Donald Trump’s stunning late-night Rust Belt upsets, and that indelible New York Times dial. But the fact that changes in voting methodologies have guaranteed a much slower and less immediately conclusive count hasn’t entirely sunk in.

For one thing, “provisional” ballots, introduced by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, take more time to count:

Provisional ballots are usually tallied last, sometimes after the election night count, because they require greater scrutiny. A board has to review each of the provisional ballots and verify whether each individual is a legitimate voter. Provisional ballots can often delay the vote count because that process takes time. 

Presumably many of these votes would not have been counted at all before HAVA, but vindicating eligible voters’ right to participate does slow things down. The same is true to an even greater extent of votes cast by mail, whether they are traditional “absentee ballots” or, as is increasingly the case, a standard alternative to in-person voting.

When voters show up at the polls in person, they sign in with their signatures verified by poll workers against registration records. The same has to be done with mail ballots in an entirely separate process. In some states (such as the voting-by-mail pioneers of Oregon, who begin counting mail ballots a week before Election Day), that is done quickly, but not so much elsewhere. In Georgia, state law prohibits counting early votes before Election Night. In California, “late” mail ballots (often those received the weekend before Election Day) are often set aside until after in-person votes are counted. And in California and Washington (and for overseas military ballots, a number of other states) mail ballots postmarked by Election Day still count (though in California they have to be received within the three days after Election Day).

None of this was entirely new in 2018. But then again, states like California weren’t competitive in the 2016 presidential race, so it drew less attention that the vote count was very slow. That changed this year with California’s assortment of highly competitive House races. And as the Los Angeles Times explains, there was no reason to think Election Night numbers for close races meant a whole lot, appearances notwithstanding:

The morning after the Nov. 6 congressional midterm election in California, state, county and media websites reported that 100% of precincts had turned in their results.

It was highly misleading: The final tally, released Friday [December 7], showed that a staggering 5.2 million of the 12.1 million ballots cast — 43% — remained uncounted that morning. Most of the outstanding votes were from mail ballots.

Very high turnout (California’s was an estimated 65 percent, as opposed to 42 percent in the last midterm) contributed to the slow count. But there’s really zero evidence to support Republican claims that late returns were “cooked” to reverse GOP “victories.” The only norm violated was the archaic expectation that races would be resolved on Election Night.

California was hardly the only state where late mail and provisional ballots kept contests unresolved for days after November 6. Gubernatorial races in Florida and Georgia and House races in multiple states hung fire as the final ballots were counted. And that could create some real issues in 2020. Even if California is again out of reach for Donald Trump, heavy early-voting states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and possibly even Texas could be in play. And given Trump’s proclivity (echoed by other Republicans this year such as outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan) to identify any adverse results with illegal voting, another Election Night that produces misleading initial results could lead to potentially calamitous disputes over the election’s legitimacy.

Trump’s going to be Trump, of course. But media can begin right now to prepare each other and voters themselves for the new reality of when votes are cast and when they are counted. Ideally, of course, we’d have a national election system where everyone was presumed to have the right to vote and every state operated according to the same procedures, with adequate resources to ensure fairness and efficiency. Until then, let’s get over the idea that elections begin on “Election Day” and end on “Election Night.”

‘Election Night’ Is an Outdated and Dangerous Relic