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Here’s What Will Likely Happen on Election Day

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Gif: Jim Cooke

On Tuesday, November 3, 2020, America will choose the next president of the United States.

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Maybe.

The 2020 election is fraught with more unknowables than any other election in American history. Not only do we not know whether Donald John Trump or Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. will serve as America’s next president, we don’t even know when we’ll know. We can’t even definitively say if the next president will be chosen by voters, the Electoral College, Congress or the Supreme Court.

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To assuage some of this uncertainty, The Root has compiled this two-part, best-guess prediction of what Election Day might look like, as well as the days following the first Tuesday in November. This analysis comes from months of research, seminars and interviews with some of the country’s top experts in their fields including:

  • The Aspen Institute: Aspen Digital’s “Preparing for a Contested Election” project
  • Sally Buzbee: senior vice president and executive editor, the Associated Press
  • Kristen Clarke: executive director for Lawyer’s Committee Under Civil Rights
  • Trey Grayson: former Kentucky secretary of state and past president of National Association of Secretaries of State
  • Sherrilyn Ifill: president and director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
  • Kamala Harris: California senator and Democratic nominee for vice president of the United States of America
  • Mary McCord: legal director, Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Georgetown Law
  • Elie Mystal: legal scholar and justice correspondent at The Nation
  • Malcolm Nance: former counterterrorism and intelligence officer, author of The Plot to Hack America
  • The National Task Force on Election Crises: A cross-partisan group of more than 50 experts in election law, election administration, national security, cybersecurity, voting rights, civil rights, technology, media, public health, and emergency response
  • Nate Persily: James B. McClatchy Professor of Law, Stanford Law School
  • Vivian Schiller: executive director, Aspen Digital

Nov. 3, 8 a.m. ET: Polls open

If you were one of the lucky few Americans who managed to get some sleep last night, you may notice a significantly shorter wait time at the polls this year. However, you shouldn’t assume people aren’t participating in this important exercise in democracy; there’s a very good reason for this year’s sparse crowds:

A lot of people have already voted.

According to the Election Project, about 1.4 million Americans had already voted by October 16, 2016. So far, more than 35 million early voters have already cast their ballots for the 2020 election, a pace that will undoubtedly surpass the 47 million early votes cast in 2016. This avalanche of absentee and mail-in ballots will surely affect the lines at your local precinct…

Unless you’re Black.

Why we think this will happen: Nationwide, early vote totals have already exceeded 25 percent of 2016’s total turnout.

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Noon: Problems at the polls

Every academically rigorous, peer-reviewed study that exists on voting wait times concluded that people in heavily African-American precincts wait significantly longer to vote.

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During the 2012 election, Black voters reported waiting an average of 26 minutes to vote while white voters only waited about 12 minutes. A University of California at Los Angeles study on wait times for the 2016 election used geolocation data from cell phones at 80 percent of America’s 110,000. It concluded that the average wait time for voters in Black neighborhoods was 29 percent longer than it was for voters in white neighborhoods. Black voters nationwide were 79 percent more likely than any other demographic to wait for more than 30 minutes before they cast a ballot.

In 2016, Black voters in Florida had their ballots disproportionately tossed . Georgians reported that the decades-old election software somehow switched their votes in the 2018 midterms. This happens because majority-Black precincts are also more likely to have older machines and fewer poll workers, the New York Times reports.

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Facilities at Black precincts are lower in quality and voter registrations are also disproportionately purged, according to the Brennan Center, the Bipartisan Policy Center, researchers at MIT and…well, everybody. You should expect to see groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDEF) and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law ask courts for injunctions to protect voters’ rights and extend voting hours at overwhelmed precincts.

Sherrilyn Ifill, who leads the LDEF’s effort to fight voter suppression, notes that Black voters are more likely to be forced to cast provisional ballots, which, in most states, are not counted on election night.

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“In many years, this was not a big deal because the elections are not that close,” Ifill explained. “But in a number of states and jurisdictions where the elections may be close, even the provisional ballots will be critically important…And so once again, we’ll be pressing to make sure that African-American voters who voted provisionally will have an opportunity to cure those ballots on the back end.”

Why we think this will happen: There has never been an election in American history where Black voters have received equal access to the ballot box.

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3 p.m. ET: Reports of intimidation and violence at the polls

Every expert we interviewed said we should expect some measure of violence or voter intimidation on Election Day.

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President Trump’s call for his supporters to show up at the polls and “watch very carefully” has gotten the attention of citizen militia organizations, Trump supporters and white supremacist organizations like the Proud Boys, who the president instructed to “stand down” but still “stand by.”

Federal law bans any activity that would “intimidate, threaten, or coerce a person” to interfere with the right to vote, according to the Department of Justice. However, there are no laws to stop individuals or groups from showing up in public places to form what experts refer to as power projection parades—a tactic commonly used to instill fear in regular citizens. Because laws governing the conduct of militia groups vary from state to state, combined with the fact that some states allow open guns at polling places, the Gifford’s Law Center and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection both note that the prospect of weapon-toting private paramilitary patrollers on Election Day is very real.

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“I think that they could get away with doing a measure of intimidation with power projection parades on Election Day,” security and intelligence expert Malcolm Nance told The Root.

Nance says that military intelligence officials have witnessed this strategy used by authoritarian regimes around the globe, including Russia and the Islamic State. Nance also notes that law enforcement officers tend to sympathize with these groups and consider them “friendlies” who are often pro-police.

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“But if there is broad or sporadic violence, or if there is a mass shooting, every other cop in the United States is going to take a dim view of these guys,” added Nance. “But even if police respond, the fact that it has already happened may prevent people from showing up to the polls.”

“We should remember that intimidation is not just about independent militia groups,” Sherrilyn Ifill explained. “We also have concerns, frankly, about state actors. Um, you heard the president talk about bringing out sheriffs and so forth. We’re also on the lookout for that.”

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However, Nance noted that Trump’s clarion call for sheriffs to show up at the polls had nothing to do with law enforcement. Instead, it was a dog whistle to the growing right-wing “constitutional sheriffs movement,” rooted in the belief that self-deputized sheriffs hold the ultimate law enforcement authority—outranking the local cops, state police and even federal law enforcement officials.

“These yahoos really believe they are a legitimate sanctified militia of Donald Trump,” said Nance. “You will see them at the polls.”

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Why we think this will happen: Aside from our experts, only a few institutions have suggested that fringe right-wingers might swarm polling sites:

6 p.m. ET: The counting begins

We probably won’t have election results on election night.

“The best way to think about election night this year is it’s the beginning of election-counting week or month because it’s going to take a long time for jurisdictions, especially those who haven’t experienced this volume of vote by mail to count those ballots accurately,” said Trey Grayson, former secretary of state for Kentucky. who also served as past president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.

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I know I just explained how millions of people voted early this election. I know I said the lines would be shorter this year. However, in an election with a predicted record turnout, only a handful of states allow officials to begin tallying their early votes before Election Day, according to data from the National Council of State Legislatures. Furthermore, many of the states that allow extensive early voting and absentee options—including the states whose outcomes are crucial to the presidential election — aren’t allowed to start counting the ballots until after polls close.

“Imagine the chaos that would ensue if 50 percent of the voters all showed up at one precinct at one time,” Greyson explained. “Well, that’s essentially what’s going to happen in county offices or city offices where they count in-house. All those ballots are gonna come in and they’re gonna need more people and more equipment. And for a lot of jurisdictions, they’ve never done this before and they can’t capture savings from Election Day voting because they don’t know who’s going to vote in person. So it’s a real challenge.”

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Why we think this will happen: You have to count the ballots and only 16 states allow officials to begin tallying their early votes before Election Day.

9 p.m. ET: No one knows anything

If you want to know the unofficial results before bedtime, you can just watch the news, right? Or maybe you can check out the exit polls. Plus, the internet knows everything!

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Well, not quite.

Because there is no precedent for this amount of early voting, the increase in in-person and how proportional they are to each other, media outlets aren’t very likely to call races early because—even with the exit polls and statistics— they can’t be sure what it means.

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Sally Buzbee oversees the Associated Press’ global news operations and news content from journalists based in 250 locations around the world. She cautions that this election will reveal an entirely new world where news outlets will exercise an abundance of caution before giving any definitive indications in political contests. Buzbee is quick to point out that news outlets do not “call” an election; they only project winners.

“We cannot project winners [or] call races until we know for sure that someone has actually mathematically won or that they know they have no mathematical path to victory,” Buzbee notes. “One thing that’s very important to keep in mind is that in general, most states, not all, but most tend to count mail-in ballots last; sometimes that can be days after Election Day. This has happened routinely over the last few years.”

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Why does Buzbee feel the need to say this?

Well, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin—which are pivotal but hotly contested states in Biden’s and Trump’s battle for 270 electoral votes—can’t legally start counting their early votes until election morning. Florida and Arizona can start counting early weeks before the election, but will likely be too close to call even when polls close.

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Plus, you know…

It’s Florida and Arizona.

This could take hours.

Why we think this will happen: The majority of states won’t even begin counting until polls close. In crucial states like Pennsylvania, Texas and Nevada will count mail-in ballots received after election day, according to data from the National Council of State Legislatures.

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Midnight ET: Things get crazy

The fact that the election results will almost certainly take longer than usual, along with news outlets’ hesitancy to project winners, means this could take all night. During the intervening wait for results, you will hear about voting machine malfunctions, intimidation and confrontations at the polls.

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How can we be so sure any of these incidents will happen?

Because they always happen. It’s mathematically impossible for hundreds of thousands of different voting systems, software and precincts operated by fallible human beings to all work perfectly. Machines fail every Election Day. There’s always a miscount, a showdown and a voting machine still running Microsoft Word on Windows 95 that’s going to give someone a “404 did not compute” error.

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But, because President Trump’s rhetoric has injected doubt into the legitimacy of ballot counting, this could lead some people to believe shenanigans are afoot. There is no indication that Trump won’t continue to perpetuate this narrative on election night, which could fuel civil unrest.

Why we think this will happen:

Asked about the probability of unrest on election night, Nance explained:

Well, let’s look at the facts:

Trump vilified Maxine Waters, Eric Holder and Democrats in Congress. All of a sudden, pipe bombs showed up in their mail. He talked about Portland and the Proud Boys show up. He calls for “law and order” in Wisconsin and Kyle Rittenhouse kills two people. He tweets “liberate Michigan” and people show up with long guns and plan to kidnap the governor. Can you think of a single threat that someone hasn’t taken seriously? So, the question isn’t why I think Vanilla ISIS—that’s what I call them—will show up on election day.

The question is why does anyone think they won’t?

Go to sleep.

Tomorrow’s gonna be even crazier.

Tomorrow: Part 2 – What Will Happen the Day After the Election

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