Each week on my “Margins of Error” podcast, we discuss topics that seem to be on the margins at first glance but that are actually where knowledge and discovery really begin. Recent episodes covered cremation and couples sleeping apart. All episodes are based on data points that, when explored further, reveal much more about American politics, culture and behavior.
Tonight in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest, the stakes won’t be nearly as high as they were last year, but election nerds will do the same, with this contest potentially signaling a lot about the political environment heading into the 2022 midterms. In part because of laws requiring absentee ballots to be preprocessed long before Election Day, we’re hopeful for a relatively quick count.
Last year, it didn’t happen.
As we all know, election night 2020 turned into election week, and a winner (now President Joe Biden) wasn’t projected until nearly noon on Saturday. With the exception of the 2000 election, it took more than 7 times as long to project a winner in last year’s presidential election than any in the television era (i.e. since 1948).
As we hit the one-year anniversary of Election Day 2020, I’ve decided to revisit that day (and week) in the latest episode of my “Margins of Error” podcast. I’ve generally avoided political topics in my podcasts, instead focusing on issues like ghosts, couples’ sleeping arrangements and our aversion to making phone calls. The truth is that politics over the last five years — and especially during the coronavirus — well, it wore me out. But when it comes around election time, I get — dare I say — a tingling up my spine.
So in this week’s episode, I wanted to answer some questions. Mainly, whether it matters that it took so long to project a winner last year and if so, why did it take so long? And does that tell us anything about future election calls?
This isn’t just an academic exercise. Polling in the lead up to the 2020 election showed that many voters would be less confident that the results were counted accurately if it took more than election night to know who won. This included a majority of Republicans, according to CNN/SSRS polling.
I bet many of these people didn’t know that a lot of elections in our country’s history took days to determine the winner. According to Columbia University’s Nicole Hemmer, “It’s not until 1848 that everyone is even voting on the same day. There was a 34-day spread in which people could vote for president in the first half of the 19th century.”
She noted that the need for a fast result is “is a part of political culture, not part of election law.” This culture really started, Hemmer said, when the telegraph and especially the radio and television took hold.
Indeed, the number one goal of any media projection should be and usually is for it to be accurate. Most major media organizations will only project a state when they are at least 99.5% confident of the outcome.
Election week 2020 occurred because we couldn’t get to that 99.5% confidence. This was caused by a confluence of events including the coronavirus, many more people voting by mail, some key swing states not being able to handle that high volume of mail voting and a large partisan split in who voted by mail.
This led to slower counts from states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
As the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman noted to me, the massive growth of vote-by-mail makes it “just really impossible to make strong conclusions about a competitive race” from the data and equations we have traditionally used. These tools — like exit polls, sample precincts and early returns — work best when the vast majority of people vote in-person on Election Day.
For some, it doesn’t really matter if election night becomes a thing of the past. If the count is accurate, then that’s all that matters, regardless of when the results come in.
But I’m not so sure. Faith in the electoral counts is important. We’ve seen many political actors (most notably former President Donald Trump) try to destroy that faith by attacking the long counts. This led to fewer Americans having confidence in the 2020 election result than any other in recent memory. A majority of Republicans had no confidence at all that the election was conducted fairly, according to a Monmouth University survey taken after the election.
Looking ahead, there’s no doubt that some states are going to continue to take a while with their counts as long as mail-in voting continues to be widely used. But states can certainly expedite their counts by ensuring that mail-in ballots are required to be processed starting in the weeks leading up to the election.
To that point, Georgia was much faster with its count in the 2021 Senate runoffs than it was in the 2020 presidential election.
“Once you sort of adopt a given system of voting, you have opportunities to improve upon it over time,” the New York Times’ Nate Cohn told me. “And I think that some of these…states will have plenty of opportunities to improve on what they showed us in 2020. And I would expect some of those changes to be in place by 2022.”
In the meantime, it might be safer to pluralize election night to election nights for the time being.