A lot of attention has appropriately been paid to the possibility that heavy voting by mail colliding with restrictive state laws on counting mail ballots and possible interference from politicians and judges could make it difficult to determine the presidential-election winner in the usual short time frame. Indeed, an expected partisan split in preferred voting methods could produce an illusory lead for Donald Trump on Election Night that should be steadily eroded, if not reversed, by a “blue shift” from heavily Democratic mail ballots.
But the presidential contest isn’t the only one that may be affected by this year’s strange dynamics. Control of the Senate may also take a while to establish, with some unusual state election laws playing a role alongside slow counts and possible legal challenges.
The most obvious cases of potential delays come from close Senate races in states that don’t start processing mail ballots until on or shortly before Election Day. These include Michigan (Democratic incumbent Gary Peters is facing Republican John James, and some pollsters show a close race), Iowa (Republican incumbent Joni Ernst is trailing Democrat Theresa Greenfield in most polls), South Carolina (Republican Lindsey Graham is getting the fight of his political life from Democrat Jaime Harrison), and Alabama (incumbent Democrat Doug Jones is an underdog to Republican Tommy Tuberville).
Two other states have election laws that could prevent a quick call. In Maine, the red-hot race between veteran Republican incumbent Susan Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon could be resolved by the state’s unique ranked-choice-voting (or, as some call it, “instant runoff”) system, wherein voters can express as many choices as the number of candidates, and candidates are eliminated until someone achieves a majority. These tabulations take time; when first applied in 2018, the winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary wasn’t identified for eight days. With multiple independents on the Senate ballot, the odds of the Collins-Gideon race going to an instant runoff are pretty high.
Georgia also has a majority-vote requirement for general-election winners, but the state deals with plurality results by holding an old-fashioned runoff election (on January 5 for federal offices). One Georgia Senate race will definitely go to a runoff: the nonpartisan “jungle primary” contest to fill the remainder of the term Johnny Isakson resigned at the end of last year. It’s likely Democrat Raphael Warnock will face one of the two Republicans who have been savaging each other all year (appointed senator Kelly Loeffler and Congressman Doug Collins, competing to see who can sound Trumpier). But the more conventional contest between incumbent Republican David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff could go to a runoff as well, if the race stays close and the Libertarian candidate gets the usual 2 percent.
There’s no telling at this point whether additional states with competitive Senate races will have delayed returns thanks to poor handling of mail ballots or partisan litigation slowing down or stopping counts — but it’s likely.
And it’s worth remembering that sometimes Senate races are just so crazy close that identifying winners takes a while. Arizona and Florida are proud of their efficient handling of mail ballots (the former processes them on receipt, and the latter began processing them on September 24). But in 2018, it took Arizona six days to certify Kyrsten Sinema’s Senate win over Martha McSally, and it took Florida even longer to declare Rick Scott the winner over incumbent senator Bill Nelson after a recount. Aside from the aforementioned contests, polls show competitive Senate races in Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, and Texas. There’s plenty that could go wrong or go long in calling these contests.
If Democrats perform as well on Election Day as polls currently indicate and Trump fails (or, less likely, declines) to successfully screw up the counting of mail ballots, perhaps all the uncertainty will dissipate and Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Chuck Schumer will have plenty of time to prepare for new responsibilities as president, vice-president, and Senate majority leader, respectively. But don’t be shocked if Senate control comes down to a cold January day in Georgia.