Why Americans won't panic if election results are delayed
President Trump introduced his election results timeline in a farce of innocent curiosity.
With a high rate of mail-in balloting, he tweeted in early July, "[e]lection results could be delayed for months. No more big election night answers?" Hmm, just asking questions, folks. A few weeks later, he posted on the subject again, this time more adamant: "Must know Election results on the night of the Election," he said, "not days, months, or even years later!"
By early September, Trump was labeling anything but a full and final determination on the night of Tuesday, November 3, a Democratic conspiracy to "creat[e] havoc" and steal the election. He hit on this theme at the first presidential debate, at rallies in New Hampshire on Sunday and Pennsylvania on Monday, and again on Twitter Monday evening. "So if we don't know the result on November 3, that means unlike has always been [NB: not always] where you generally find out the election that night or soon, we could be going on forever with this," Trump told the New Hampshire crowd. "It's the craziest thing."
A never-decided election stretching on "forever" would be crazy — it's incredible, in fact, which may be why Trump's story isn't sticking, even among Republicans.
Only one in three Americans expects to know who won the presidency on election night, an NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll published Tuesday finds, and by our current standards of polarization, expectations are quite consistent across party lines. Though GOP voters are more likely (36 percent) to expect same-day results than are independents (28 percent) or Democrats (25 percent), this is quite a slight partisan gap for a familiar subject on which Trump has taken a vocal stance.
The obvious explanation is that Americans have been living with the coronavirus pandemic for nine months now and are not entirely insensate. We've observed, firsthand, that public health measures — whether we support them or not — have effects on daily life. They slow things down. They literally add extra steps. Why would vote tabulation be immune to this sluggishness?
Trump might be able to beguile his base with tales of far-off lands, like how he's supposedly ending all the wars and making Mexico pay for border wall construction. But his insistence on the necessity of fast election results is a much harder sell when you've just come from standing in a long, slow, spaced-out line at the grocery store or sat on hold with the IRS for an hour because they still haven't sent the relief check you were supposed to get back in April.
Counting votes for a country of this size is a big project, even without a record-high number of votes by mail — why shouldn't it take a few days? If our concern is making sure every vote is counted correctly, a same-day decision is arguably more suspect than one that arrives a little later.
But how much later can Americans handle? A plurality (38 percent) are prepared to wait "a few days" to know who won the White House. One in five expects to know "within a few weeks." But what if November ends, and we still don't know? By that point, proactive measures — like responsible circumspection in election night journalism and the decision of sites like YouTube and Facebook to caution users about believing unfounded declarations of victory — won't be much help. If it's mid-December and you've come to believe the American presidential election is being stolen by enemies of democracy, a social media site telling you to chill out will, if anything, have the opposite effect.
And we, as a people, are not patient. Trump is worse than most, apparently operating on the expectation that life will run with the speed and ephemerality of reality TV. But as a country, we have long since shaped our lives to maximize convenience, immediacy, and gratification never delayed. We haven't practiced for this moment. We haven't built the patience we soon may require, and we are unlikely to develop that virtue ex nihilo between now and Inauguration Day.
We can, however, adjust our expectations. The last seriously contested presidential election was the 2000 race, and that took more than a month to settle absent the logistical complications of a pandemic. This past spring's primary elections are informative as well: The 23 states that held primaries after March 17, when COVID-19 lockdowns had begun, averaged four days to report "nearly complete results," The Washington Post has calculated.
That four-day average is probably too low for the general election, which has far higher stakes and vote totals than the primaries. This means that no matter how the court battles over mail-in ballot counts play out, it would be surprising if we had a definitive presidential result by the end of election week, let alone election night. That longer timeline isn't proof of fraud. It's not sinister. It's not havoc. It's just what a pandemic election looks like in a big, messy, and very impatient democracy.