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Why We’re Planning For An Election Day That Could Last Months

Election Day isn’t one day anymore. The 2020 election is shaping up to be a whole “election month” — or even election months, depending how things go.

Instead of Americans going to the polls en masse on Nov. 3, many voters will probably make their decisions and cast their ballots over the course of October. And instead of learning who won on election night, we’ll likely have to wait days — or in some states, weeks — for full results, as the counting of mail ballots proceeds at a much slower pace than we are accustomed to.

The coronavirus pandemic is responsible for this: Concerns over public health have prompted dozens of states to change their election laws and procedures to make it easier to vote before Election Day. Not every state has followed suit, but the changes have been pretty sweeping so far:

It’s dizzying enough to keep up with all of the changes and deadlines in your state — let alone across the entire nation. So FiveThirtyEight is doing it for you. Today we’re proud to unveil our new state-by-state guide on how to vote in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., which not only aggregates these changes by state and category but is also a compendium of election laws that existed before the pandemic even started.

First and foremost, this is a public service project meant to help voters navigate the latest voting rules in their state. Maybe you feel more comfortable voting by mail this year, but you’re not sure how; we’ll tell you how to request an absentee ballot (and mail it back in time to count). Maybe you prefer voting in person; we’ve got info on whether polling places will be open as usual and when you might be able to vote early. Maybe you’re not even registered yet; we’ve got all you need to know about joining the rolls.

And since states aren’t done making changes, neither are we: We’ve highlighted aspects of election administration that are still in flux in the “What we’re watching” section for relevant states, and we’ll keep the guide up to date with further revisions to each state’s voting process — right up until Nov. 3. We’ve made every effort to ensure the guide is accurate, but it must be said: Always double-check this information with your local election official before acting upon it. Election laws in the age of COVID-19 are moving targets, and certain voters — like those living overseas or in the armed forces — may be subject to special rules. Always follow directions from official sources, like those on your absentee-ballot envelope, over ours. If you ever see something you think is wrong or needs to be updated, please shoot us an email.

We also created the guide in part to get a holistic sense for how different the 2020 election might look. That includes how different it might look from past elections, and also how different the 2020 election might look in one state versus another. Thanks to the U.S.’s decentralized election system, each state is responding to the pandemic in different ways — as is clear from the map at the top of the guide, which illustrates which states have the most permissive mail-voting laws and which have the most restrictive. For instance, as of the publication of this article, only eight states are not planning to allow all voters to vote absentee. And as you can see in our map, they are, by and large, Southern states with Republican-controlled legislatures. (New York is a notable exception.)

We’re also using this guide to help us anticipate which states might encounter problems during election month — either because they failed to adapt their election procedures to the pandemic, or because they made a big change that they are not up to the task of implementing. One very real possibility is that states that are mailing ballots, or even applications for mail-in ballots, to every voter for the first time overwhelm the election workers tasked with processing those materials. In primary elections over the last few months, states that rapidly expanded mail voting often had trouble delivering ballots to voters on time.

Another common problem in primaries has been long lines (sometimes as long as seven hours!) to vote in person in states that opened fewer polling places. This is not usually a deliberate change; rather, jurisdictions have been forced to consolidate polling places because so many poll workers — who tend to be older and thus at higher risk from the coronavirus — have opted out. Accordingly, we don’t yet know much about what in-person voting access will look like on Nov. 3; as far as we’ve been able to ascertain, only Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and Washington, D.C., have announced plans to offer fewer in-person polling places on Election Day itself. (However, two states — California and Nevadahave passed new rules about polling-place consolidation in an attempt to mitigate its ill effects.) But more will almost certainly join them, and given the potential it brings for Election Day chaos, we will add that information to the guide as it emerges.

Lastly, there’s a very real chance that we won’t know the winner of the election on election night, or even the day after. This is the other half of election month: the multiple weeks that it will probably take to count every vote. We will likely know the winner of the election before that, though, because some states will count much quicker than others — something else the guide can help with. In general, states that encourage voting by mail will likely be slower to count their votes, since mail-in ballots take longer to process than in-person votes: Their envelopes need to be opened, signatures need to be verified and special machines are often needed to count them.

In addition, a number of states only require ballots to be postmarked by Nov. 3. That means many valid ballots will still be in the mail on election night in those states, so it will be impossible for initial results there to be complete. This was only an issue in a handful of states (e.g., California, Utah, Washington) before 2020, because few people voted by mail in most states with postmark deadlines (e.g., Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina) — but that won’t be the case this year. And the list of slow-counting states will only grow if more states decide to switch to postmark deadlines in response to the pandemic or recent issues with slow postal service.

And with the caveat that a thorough count is better than a fast one, there is a particular sense of urgency that this election be resolved quickly to avoid claims that the election is illegitimate. President Trump has already decried mail ballots as fraudulent and hinted he will not concede the election, and polls show that Americans are already losing faith in the electoral process.

The spread of vote by mail, missing ballots, in-person voting access, delayed results — these are just some of the issues FiveThirtyEight will be using the guide to track over the next three months. We invite you to do so as well. But if nothing else, make a plan to vote today.

Editor’s note: We will not be updating this article as new election procedures are announced, but we are tracking these changes in our state-by-state voting guide. The original version of this article omitted a few changes to state election procedures that had already been announced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have made those additions, but subsequent changes will be tracked only in our interactive.

Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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