It feels like a masochistic exercise to consider where we were just four years ago—to think about what so many of us were feeling the day before the 2016 election, how naive many of us were about all that was to come.
This time around, we’ve sobered up. The anxiety has set in. We’re reaching out to each other for comfort, to offer platitudes, to suggest remedies for sleeping through the night. But there’s another cry echoing out these days, a plea for how we should all approach Election Day—or rather, Election Week: Be patient.
Our lifetimes have primed us to expect instant information and, when it comes to presidential elections, to find out the results in what feels like real-time. But this election could look a lot different as states deal with an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those ballots, especially in states that don’t have the proper infrastructure or laws in place, will take longer to count, meaning we might not get full results from certain states for days. And while there’s a chance we know earlier than expected, we need to be prepared for the alternative.
Remember, a slower count does not mean something is wrong with the vote. However, it has been predicted that this year’s voting patterns could cause deceptive early returns and a “blue shift” in some states. What does this mean exactly? Democrats are more likely to vote by mail this election, so states that report Election Day votes first could show Donald Trump with the lead, then shift as more mail ballots are counted for Joe Biden. Though this pattern has been seen before, FiveThirtyEight reports that the circumstances surrounding this particular election could make the shift “far larger this year” than in the past.
Then there’s the president to consider. Donald Trump has consistently refused to say that he’ll accept the election if it doesn’t go his way. He’s also continued to spread the (unsupported) idea that mail-in ballots lead to more voter fraud. (“I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots and the ballots are a disaster,” Trump said in September.)
This all poses a potentially worrisome scenario: What if states start off showing a Trump lead, due to the in-person Republican votes, and Trump calls the election for himself, making people question the results as they start to shift and change? There’s also the fear that a close election could lead to a “protracted postelection struggle in the courts and the streets,” Richard L. Hasen, author of Election Meltdown, told The Atlantic.
But this is all going to occur in the context of a national response—and part of that response depends on what people are expecting to happen this Tuesday. “The better prepared Americans are for lengthy counts and major vote shifts because of the increase in mail-in ballots, the less likely they are to believe misinformation about what those swings mean,” Geoffrey Skelley writes in FiveThirtyEight.
In short: One of the best things we can do right now is be a little patient, prepare to wait a bit longer to see how the votes shake out, and give officials time to report them accurately. If you’re voting on Election Day, brace yourself for long lines and know your rights. If you’ll be sitting by the TV all night, ready yourself by learning when different states are expecting to report results. Get set for all that could happen in the days to come. Check in on your loved ones. And settle in for what could be a long, and potentially bumpy, ride.
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