This year, the winner may not be decided by election night. Officials have speculated that it could take weeks for the U.S. to formally declare its new leader.
There are several reasons for this. Andrea Perrella, an associate professor of political science at Wilfred Laurier University, said “it all comes down to a bit of everything.”
But at the top of that list, he said, is mail-in voting.
What is mail-in voting?
In the U.S., states can choose to have either universal mail-in voting, in which ballots are mailed to all voters, or absentee voting, which requires a voter to request an absentee ballot to be mailed.
Voter fraud is known to be a rare occurrence in the U.S. According to the Associated Press, mail-in ballots are also cast in the same way as absentee mail ballots, with the same safeguards like signature verification in place to prevent identity fraud.
With the U.S. Postal Service expecting larger waves of ballots due to the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say the votes could take longer to count. According to the New York Times, “at least three-quarters of all American voters will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail for the 2020 election — the most in U.S. history.”
As a result, Perrella said there could be delays with sorting, delivering and verifying each mailed ballot.
“Unlike an in-person ballot, it takes a little longer to validate a mailed ballot because you have to check to see if the ballot is legit,” he said.
Some states, like Washington, have been using the “Vote By Mail” system for decades, and may be better prepared to handle an influx of votes. But for others, like California, states will be mailing every registered voter a ballot for the first time.
Adding to that are what Perrella called “a hodgepodge of different rules” as defined by each state that would either allow mailed ballot to arrive by election day or to simply have ballots “postmarked” on election day.
“Depending how long it takes for that letter to get to the scrutineers, it may take a couple of days, may take a week,” he said.
The more time it takes to declare an official winner, the more likely it is for voters to suspect fraud or that the ballots were counted improperly, said Perrella.
In the U.S., the law states that new leadership must be chosen by the time the Electoral College, the formal body which elects the president and vice-president, meets on Dec. 14.
“Whether those accusations are legitimate or not, they still can cause a delay. And when you add up a delay, even if it’s one day here and one day there, it presses up against some deadlines,” he said.
Voting in-person could also take longer, due to the “extra care” that needs to be taken in order to keep people socially distanced due to the novel coronavirus pandemic — “unlike other elections with people standing alone or shoulder to shoulder,” said Perrella.
If the wrong winner is declared before all of the ballots are counted, Perrella said there could be “potential for a lot of dispute” there as well.
If the wrong winner is declared for too long, he expressed concerns of a “big political quagmire and potentially can lead to great instability, especially if the losing side begins to doubt that they lost.”
“There’s one thing about a democracy that not that many people realize: democracies don’t survive because winners are elected, they survive because losers say, ‘All right, I lost fair and square,'” he said.
Matthew Lebo, political science department chair at Western University, said that in order to have new leadership decided on election night, one candidate would have to show an insurmountable lead over the other.
“It would have to be that one candidate or another won enough electoral votes and won enough states by wide enough margins so that they could be comfortably declared the winner,” he said.
Lebo, who specializes in U.S. politics, said he’d have a tough time picturing Trump in that position given his recent low polling numbers, but it’s possible that enough key states will count their ballots and absentee ballots fast enough to give Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden a sizeable lead to win 270 electoral votes by the next night.
After the votes have been counted, House and Senate representatives may object to the way the votes were counted, which could trigger a recount.
Lebo said he imagines lawsuits will be filed “very quickly” over which ballots should be counted and which should be excluded.
“It’ll be very partisan, of course,” he said.
“Where it whereas a candidate is ahead they will want all counting to stop and where a candidate is behind, they’ll want as many as possible.”