(NEXSTAR) – Contrary to what many people believe, journalists project winners on election night, not the states themselves. The process of “calling” a state is a complicated mix of analyzing returns, exit polling and balancing expectations. The shift to mail-in voting has added significant complexity to that process in 2020 and we’ve been warned to expect delays.
Further complicating matters is the fact that not all states begin counting their absentee and mail ballots at the same time.
Some states – like Georgia and Texas – allow mail ballot counting for weeks ahead of election day, meaning that data can be totaled up with in-person votes to give us a nearly complete total on November 3rd (minus some straggling postmarked ballots). If those states were to turn blue, it could signal a big night for former Vice President Joe Biden.
But, there are six other states far more likely to decide the election. Here’s a look at what experts are saying about the timing of the vote count in the key swing states:
Florida: The state known for controversy – thanks largely to the 2000 hanging chad debacle – is also among the fastest to report results. As the New York Times reports, the Sunshine State has already been counting tens of thousands of votes a day. Since ballots aren’t accepted after Election Day, we should have a clear picture of the winner here on election night. A loss here would give few paths to victory for President Trump.
Arizona: With fewer electoral votes (11) than others on the list, Arizona is not the most likely state to tip the scales on election night. The former Republican stronghold has been trending blue, and many Democrats see it as likely to flip at both the Senate and presidential level. To find out for sure on election night, we may need a clear margin of victory. Same-day and early mail-in votes should all be in, but a potentially significant number of late-arriving absentee votes could linger until late in the week, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Michigan: Much of the late polling indicates that this is the swing state most likely to turn blue after flipping to Trump in 2016. The state can’t start counting absentee ballots until Monday, meaning if things are close we could be waiting several days for a complete total and an obvious winner. According to Politico, the best guess is that the full vote won’t be in until Friday.
Wisconsin: Similar to Michigan, this state is polling blue but does not allow an early count. Election officials have promised to work through the night to process results and state officials have said they expect to have a state winner late Tuesday or early Wednesday, according to FiveThirtyEight. Wisconsin is among the most likely to tip a candidate over the needed 270 Electoral College votes.
North Carolina: The state’s 15 electoral votes could take the longest to assign unless the contest is lopsided. Most of those expected to vote have already done so in advance, and experts say about 80 percent of the vote will be known shortly after polls close. But, the state plans to count ballots that come in by November 12th, meaning more than a week of uncertainty if the state is highly competitive. Polls show that it could be.
Pennsylvania: With 20 electoral votes, this state appears most likely to swing the election next week. Unlike Florida, we shouldn’t expect the vote count to be completed quickly. Election officials can’t begin counting the early votes until Election Day, and slogging through them all will likely take longer than a day. The state will also allow absentee votes to trickle in through November 6th. That means it could take several days to call the election if the keystone state holds the keys to the White House. As FiveThirtyEight reports, the state does have a firm final count deadline on the 23rd. So we should know the result by then at the very least.
While delays in the total vote count could mean delays in determining the outcome of tight contests, it’s also entirely possible that early data will provide journalists with enough clarity to call swing state races on election night or at some point the next day.