After a long and tense presidential campaign, it’s officially election night. Polls are closing in Pennsylvania. But unlike most elections, it seems unlikely that the U.S. will know who will be its next president by the morning.
As Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffery put it, “The entire country is awaiting a biopsy result.” Many want the malignancy that has marked so much of the Trump administration to be halted, and for the healing to begin. But chances are, we are in for a wait.
And that’s all right. Like everything else in 2020, this election has been far from normal. While it is not impossible for the winner to be clear by Wednesday morning, there are many other scenarios in which results will be delayed by days. The results from Pennsylvania, a critical Electoral College prize for either camp’s road to 270, will be delayed since some counties won’t even start counting mail-in ballots until Wednesday morning.
Anxiety is natural. It’s worth remembering, however, that there have been elections that demanded long waits before the outcome was decided. In coverage of the 1860 election, which Abraham Lincoln won, The Inquirer explained to readers that “it will require many hours before the full vote of the interior counties of Pennsylvania is ascertained.” For a more modern example, look to California, where key 2018 House races were called after days because of the large number of mail-in ballots and their late arrival.
While the pace of the returns might be frustrating to some voters, the campaigns, and the media, delays do not represent a problem. An election is decided after every vote is counted, whether that takes hours or days.
That is a fact that President Donald Trump, known for his impatience and lack of restraint, has refused to accept. He has made the claim many times that late results open the door for fraud. That is untrue. Trump also signaled that he will use any means possible to destabilize the process — including declaring victory without basis.
No matter if a pundit calls the election, or the president himself declares victory, or if a candidate seems to be “leading,” it’s only over when every vote is counted. That’s worth remembering. And from everything we’ve seen so far, the election infrastructure is working.
That’s especially heartening given the volume of votes already cast. More than 100 million early votes were cast in person and by mail before the polls even opened Tuesday. According to the New York Times, we could be seeing the highest turnout in more than a century. On Tuesday, people stood in long lines, in the middle of a pandemic, to exercise their right to vote. Record numbers of people volunteered their time as poll workers.
Also heartening is the fact that expected disruption and violence at the Philadelphia polls and elsewhere failed to materialize — and we hope that continues into the night.
After every vote is counted, and only then, the election will be over. The result itself won’t change if it will take a few more hours or a couple more days — or if you go to sleep.