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Here's Why It's OK That We Don't Know Who Won The Election Just Yet

by Morgan Brinlee

Polls have closed across the country and the votes are in. But the results of the 2020 presidential election? Well, the truth is, that could take a while. But exactly why don't we know who won the election yet? While media outlets have called some states in the presidential election, counting is far from complete in key battleground states.

Thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, 2020 has been a year like no other. While the virus has undoubtedly affected so much of our daily lives, it has also changed the way we voted. In an effort to limit the virus' spread, ABC News reported some 30 states expanded access to vote by mail programs, leading to an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, all of which take longer to count than ballots cast in person. Additionally, rules vary by state for how and when mail-in ballots must be counted and recorded.

For example, in Oregon, a state where nearly everyone votes by mail in a normal year, election officials begin processing and counting ballots days before Election Day. As a result, FiveThirtyEight has reported the state often has counted a majority of ballots before election night ends. In contrast, Pennsylvania, a state where roughly half of voters were expected to vote by mail, didn't even begin to process mail-in ballots until the morning of Election Day. As a result, many counties in Pennsylvania are not expected to have a final vote count until late in the week, according to FiveThirtyEight.

But mail-in ballots alone aren't why we don't know now whether the next president of the United States will be Donald Trump or Joe Biden. The truth is, finalized election results have never been known on Election Day. In fact, according to Ballotpedia, most states don't even certify their election results until weeks after Election Day.

Instead, election results are often projected by news outlets as partial vote counts roll in on election night. Those outlets may "call" an election in favor of a specific candidate when it appears that candidate has gained enough of a lead compared to the number of ballots still uncounted and the region or states those uncounted ballots are coming from.

While the race to call an election used to be a hot contest for news outlets, this year has seen those same outlets commit to changing how they report election results in an effort to combat potential misinformation. Among those changes is a commitment to wait for a more complete picture before calling the election and to give voters a more transparent picture of vote counts.

"Just because a count may take longer does not mean that something is necessarily wrong," CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist told The New York Times. "It may not even mean that it's a close race. We have to constantly remind the viewer that patience will be needed and this may take some time in critical states, and that doesn't mean anything is untoward."

But while news outlets have been cautioning voters against viewing delayed election results as evidence of voter fraud, President Trump has been pushing a different message. In the final days of his campaign, Trump has suggested votes shouldn't be counted after Nov. 3. "The Election should end on November 3rd," Trump tweeted Friday. "Not weeks later!"

He reiterated a similar message while speaking to reporters Sunday in North Carolina, saying he thought it was "a terrible thing when people or states are allowed to tabulate ballots for a long period of time after the election is over because it can only lead to one thing, and that's very bad." The president went on to suggest his campaign planned to legally challenge states who counted ballots after Election Day, saying, "We're going to go in the night of, as soon as that election is over, we're going in with our lawyers."

Indeed it came as no surprise that Trump attempted to claim victory shortly after midnight despite millions of votes in a number of states still uncounted. While news outlets have projected Trump won Ohio, Florida, and Texas, battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania could take days to finalize their vote counts and be key to determining the outcome of the presidential election.

But again, what Trump is suggesting — that election results in every state be finalized the night of Election Day — has never happened before. So while voters are eager to learn who the next president is, every vote deserves to be counted, even if it means results come in days or weeks after Election day.