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WKYT Fact Check | What to expect on Election Night

When will we know who wins big races?
Published: Nov. 2, 2020 at 3:10 PM EST
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - For many, turning on the TV and watching the numbers come in is an Election Night tradition. But in a year where nearly everything has looked different, watching election returns will also look different.

Unlike years past, many Kentucky voters have already cast their ballots - either absentee by mail or early in person. The situation is similar (but also different) in many other states across the country.

So, what does that mean after polls close and the counting begins? When will we know who wins?

WKYT Investigates spoke to elections officials and political observers to explain what we can expect on Election Night - and how it could change in the days afterward.

Kentucky results

Kentucky’s 2020 primary election results may have taken a week to be announced, but the state’s chief elections officer says this time things will be more back to normal.

“I think we’re going to be the first state in the country to have election results on Election Night,” Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican, told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer.

Secretary Adams said he expects to have at least 90 percent of the vote counted on Election Night.

He pointed to two reasons why that is possible:

  1. Most Kentuckians voting in person (either early or on Election Day). That accounts for about 70 percent of the vote this year. Those results can be tabulated quickly with just a push of a button, he said.
  2. County clerks being allowed to process absentee ballots as they received them. Having those ballots already processed should speed up tabulation on Election Night, when officials again will just have to push a button to get totals, Adams said.

“Unlike Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, these big swing states, they’re just starting their count on election night, and most of their votes are going to be mailed in. We’re different. We’re going to be ahead of the rest of the country. We’ll be one of the first states to report our results on election night,” he said. “We’re not going to know every single race - there are going to be some that are close - but we’re going to know who won our state for president, and who won the Senate race, I think.”

But even if we know Kentucky’s results, we will likely still have to wait to find out the winner of the presidential race.

National results

Some national analysts say the best thing for the country would be a landslide - for either candidate.

“A decisive victory by someone on election night really allows the country, the ones who didn’t win, a chance to heal,” Greta Van Susteren, Gray TV’s chief national political analyst, said in an interview.

But that scenario, she admits, is not particularly likely - especially not on Election Night - making it increasingly likely that we will not know the winner of the presidency on Tuesday.

Rules for counting ballots vary by state. And some states may still be waiting on large numbers of absentee ballots; in many states, Democrat absentee voters outnumber Republicans. That means, election experts say, early totals in those states could look “red” at first, then change to “blue” as more mailed ballots are counted.

“This is referred to in the scholarship as the ‘blue shift,’” said Joshua Douglas, an election law expert and law professor at the University of Kentucky. “There’s nothing wrong or nefarious or fraudulent about that - vote by mail is safe - but we shouldn’t draw conclusions based on partial results announced on Election Night, as compared to when the election results are actually final, when all the votes are counted.”

If races, especially in swing states, remain close: “You can expect that you will not know who the president is on Election Night, but it will be several days later,” Van Susteren said, “and there will be recounts and legal battles.”

CBS News and other national news outlets are preparing for potential uncertainty on Election Night and in the days after.

More to know

In Kentucky, absentee ballots must be post-marked by Election Day and back in the hands of your county’s elections officials by Friday (November 6). Officials know how many have been requested, so we will know how many have not been returned, where they are coming from and whether they could change the outcomes.

And do not forget that election results are never official anyway until they are certified.

“It’s been 20 years since we went to bed election night not knowing who the president’s going to be. But we’ve got some big states around the country that are going to be slower than Kentucky in counting their results,” Secretary Adams said. “So we may not know for a couple of weeks who the president is. But in our state, we’re going to know our results.”

States have until December 8 to finalize results. Electors meet December 14 to cast their ballots for the Electoral College. Those ballots are counted by a joint session of Congress on January 6. The president will be sworn in January 20.

Make sure your voice is heard

Haven’t voted yet? Find your Election Day polling location here. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. As long as you’re in line by 6 p.m., you will be allowed to vote.

Need to return your absentee ballot? The safest way at this point to ensure it is counted is to take it to an official absentee ballot dropbox. Find your county’s dropbox location(s) here.

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