Good news first: We’re almost done with this thing.
After more than a year of campaigning, speeches, debates and ads, Americans will head to the polls Tuesday.
When the full results will be known is still up in the air.
A significant increase in mail-in voting is expected to delay the release of complete results in key states, raising the possibility you may not know who’s won the White House on Tuesday night.
Here’s what you need to know to navigate it all.
First, a little reassurance: You’ll probably know the winners of races in Missouri on Tuesday as usual.
That’s the way it worked during the primary in August, and Maura Browning, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, said she doesn’t expect any different Tuesday.
Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller and other local election authorities said the same thing.
So even if the presidential count is a bit of a mess, at least you’ll know who you’re sending to Congress, the Governor’s Mansion and the statehouse.
There are two reasons for that.
The first is that Missouri is an “in-hand” state, meaning absentee and mail-in ballots must be in the hands of local elections officials when the polls close on Election Day to be counted.
Election 2020:Candidates for Missouri attorney general
More than 20 other states count ballots postmarked the day of the election that arrive afterward, making delays inevitable under normal circumstances and worse in a year like this one.
The second reason is that Missouri law allows clerks and other local election authorities to open mail-in ballots and get them ready to put through voting machines five days before an election.
Many other states don’t have that head start, so they take longer.
Bully for us.
The rest of the country
Of course, you’ll still need the results in other states to know who’s won the White House.
But there’s good news here, too: You really only need to watch a few “battleground states” to get a good sense of whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is going to come out on top: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.
Other states could also come into play, but those are the big six.
Florida, Arizona and North Carolina will be the first in. Like Missouri — and unlike the other three states — the Sun Belt Three give their election authorities a nice head start on counting the absentees, and they have some experience with mail-in voting, too.
Polls will close in Florida and North Carolina first, and here’s a word of caution: The first batch of results reported around 7:30 p.m. will be early and mail-in votes. They will favor Biden but that won’t be the whole story. You’ll have to wait a little longer for in-person results, which likely favor Trump, to get the full picture.
Regardless, experts in both states told USA Today it’s likely the public will see enough of both to know who’s won there on Tuesday night.
If Biden wins Florida, that will be a very big deal.
You can expect the talking heads on TV to say something about how the pressure is on for Trump to win all three of the slow-counting Rust Belt states to stay in office.
If Biden wins Florida and North Carolina, it could be all over but for the shouting; Together with states Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, that’d be enough to win no matter what happens in the Rust Belt.
The same would apply if Biden wins Florida and Arizona.
Tim Volgy, a political scientist at the University of Arizona, told USA Today results should be in there by the next morning.
If, on the other hand, Trump wins the Sun Belt Three, Biden will still have a chance. But he won’t have much margin for error.
At that point, you can expect the TV anchors to say the pressure is on for Biden to win the Rust Belt states — sometimes known as the “Blue Wall” — to get back in the race.
Patience will be called for: those states could take some time.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, said in a media briefing Oct. 15 he believes results will be available on election night, “and maybe at the latest the very next day.”
The elections director in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin’s largest, told the Wisconsin State Journal that results could be in between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Wednesday.
Officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania have said it could take until Friday to get full results in those states as they count the absentee ballots.
In the meantime, you’ll likely see the opposite of what’s going to happen in the Sun Belt: In-person votes favoring Trump will make the states look redder than they really are, with the race tightening as the absentee votes favoring Biden are counted.
That said, there will still be plenty of clues to how the results will turn out Tuesday night.
Fast-counting counties will provide data for observers to compare to the 2016 results to see if Trump is holding his margins, and if he is, that’ll be a signal he’s in good shape for re-election.
Bear in mind, his wins in the Rust Belt came by fairly slim margins four years ago, so if he’s doing worse than he did in 2016, that would be a signal he’s in trouble.
Calling the races
Of course, the timing of the final results could be buffetted by several different factors, up to and including lawsuits challenging ballots, deadlines and other parts of the process.
Trump has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power and hasn’t agreed to refrain from declaring victory before results are clear, and he’s hinted he’d be willing to challenge results up to the Supreme Court.
With that kind of uncertainty, news organizations like the Associated Press, which has been calling races since 1848, are reaffirming their commitments to wait as long as it takes to be sure, even if that means waiting past Nov. 3.
In a recent column, AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, whose organization will provide results to the USA Today Network on election night, noted it didn’t declare Trump the winner in 2016 until 2:29 a.m. the morning after.
“Not knowing the winner on election night does not necessarily indicate fraud or disaster,” she wrote. “It may simply mean that states are taking their time and being careful about tabulating votes.”
“We certainly want to tell the American people — and the world — who has won the presidency as soon as possible, but accuracy comes first.”
Elected officials are also encouraging patience.
Schoeller, the Greene County Clerk, noted the U.S. Constitution originally had presidents inaugurated in early March to allow enough time for ballots to be counted.
“It’s not ideal,” he said in an interview with the News-Leader. “But I think we just have to realize it’s OK not to know who the president is that night because for years, that’s how we did it as a country. We proceeded forward then and I believe we can proceed forward now.”
USA Today contributed to this report.
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader’s politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at email@example.com. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.