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After Election Night, A Winner May Not Immediately Be Clear

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As we heard there, this moment is unique. The number of early votes cast in this presidential election has blown past previous elections, largely due to the pandemic. But also, people are motivated to vote because they care deeply about the outcome. But deep breath, everybody. The thing is this. Because of how and when states process absentee and mail-in ballots, we may not know who the winner is and by what margin on election night or early November 4 or even the day after that. NPR's voting correspondent Miles Park says that's OK; don't panic. And he's with me now.

Good morning, Miles.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are you seeing for early votes? Do we know the percentage of how many votes are mail-in versus people who are voting early physically at polling stations?

PARKS: For the first time in modern election history, it looks like there will be more early votes cast than the votes actually cast on Election Day. That's never happened before. Well over 90 million people have voted early at this point, according to the U.S. Elections Project database. And about two-thirds of that is mail votes compared to about a third of it, which is early.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So as I mentioned, we may have to wait for conclusive results. And this is due to the rules different states have for processing mail-in and absentee ballots. Tell us about that.

PARKS: Right. So in most states, election officials can begin this processing work that you mention a few days or even a couple weeks before Election Day. But in a handful of states, including a few swing states, that work cannot start until actually on Election Day. And what experts say is basically this is a case of the laws not catching up to processes. You know, states across the country have expanded their vote-by-mail operations to respond to the pandemic. And in a lot of situations, the legislatures have not passed laws that make it easier for local election officials to basically deal with all that mail they're going to be receiving.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do mail-in ballots take so much more work to get counted? And where could this have a significant effect?

PARKS: You know, it seems simple, but things like just taking the ballots out of the envelopes, taking them out of secrecy sleeves and checking the signatures actually take a lot of time for election officials who, again, have tens of thousands of these to deal with. And the other thing is that a lot of counties have bought new high-tech equipment to deal with this, but a lot of those smaller rural counties have not bought that sort of equipment.

So the swing states where this could come into play are Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Election officials in all of those places cannot start processing absentee ballots until either on Election Day or right before. So it's possible, if the margins are close, we could see a scenario where one candidate basically appears to be ahead based only on the day-of Election Day votes. But then the actual winner becomes clear a day or a few days later after local election officials have had actually a chance to count all of the legally cast votes that have been cast through the mail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what's stunning is that those are not inconsequential states. These are very important states who may very well determine who the winner will be. And we've become used to watching, you know, states and territories on the map go from gray to blue or red on election night and news networks calling races just minutes after polls close in those states. This year, what should we look out for as we wait?

PARKS: Voters just need to be really patient. They need to realize that what they're watching on election night, as you mentioned, is not the winner being finalized. Those are projections by media organizations. Election officials have always taken days or weeks to finish that counting and to make those results final. This happens in every election. It's just that this year, that could mean a bit of time before we know who the president is. So that's not indicative of a problem. That's indicative of election officials basically doing safeguards and making sure that the vote is accurate. And voters need to be really skeptical of anyone who says otherwise.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's voting correspondent Miles Parks.

Thanks so much.

PARKS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.