Politics

What to Watch on Election Day in 10 Swing States

A guide to when battleground states start counting ballots and the legal fights that might slow them down.

Side-by-side photos show different masked voters submitting their ballots.
Early voting in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Makela/Getty Images, Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images, and Octavio Jones/Getty Images.

Election season is nearly over, but the presidential race might not end on Election Day. Because of the pandemic, an unprecedented number of Americans voted absentee this year, but some states have handled this shift better than others. In general, states run by Democrats have expanded opportunities to vote early, either by mail or in person, while extending the deadline for mail ballots. States run by Republicans have mostly kept the old rules in place. The good news is that almost every state let residents vote early before the spread of COVID-19. The bad news is that a number of these states are not prepared to process this surge in mail ballots and may not count ballots fast enough to provide results on election night. There is thus a good chance that we will not know the winner of the presidential election for several days after Nov. 3.

A slow vote tally isn’t the only potential hitch on Election Day. Republicans have launched a blatant assault on voting rights this year, asking the judiciary to throw out valid ballots and make voting more difficult. The final day of voting will surely bring more lawsuits: Trump has telegraphed his plan to declare victory on election night if he is ahead and then try to halt vote counting so Biden cannot catch up. He has also tried to nullify ballots that are mailed by Election Day but arrive shortly thereafter, which are lawful in many states but tend to lean Democratic.

So take a deep breath: It’s going to be a long night, if not a long week or month of lawsuits. This guide details procedures, deadlines, and live voting issues in 10 critical swing states that will affect both how people vote and when their votes are counted (all times listed are in local time for each state). As Nov. 3 progresses, keep your eyes on these states. The smoother their elections, the sooner we will know the outcome of this race.

Arizona

Starts processing mail ballots: Upon receipt

Starts counting mail ballots: 14 days before Election Day

Ballot deadline: Election Day, 7 p.m.

When to expect results: Tuesday night or Wednesday morning

Arizona conducts its elections primarily by mail, with limited in-person voting. It has improved its election machinery since the 2018 midterms, when the state counted mail ballots so slowly that most outlets only called the race six days after Election Day. (Republicans filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to halt the vote count while Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally was ahead.) Election officials now begin counting ballots two weeks before Election Day, so we should see a significant share of ballots reported on Tuesday night. In a close race, expect election lawyers to contest individual ballots.

Florida

Starts processing mail ballots: 40 days before Election Day (Sept. 24)

Starts counting mail ballots: 22 days before Election Day

Ballot deadline: Election Day, 7 p.m.

When to expect results: Tuesday night

Florida helped to pioneer no-excuse mail-in voting, and the practice remains very popular, although many residents still opt to vote in person. The state has dramatically improved its vote tabulation process since the 2000 Bush v. Gore debacle. It is now one of the country’s fastest counting states, in part because election officials start processing and counting ballots well in advance of the election. But Florida’s election machinery remains decentralized, which can create conflicts between the state government and county supervisors of elections. In October, Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a Republican, issued guidance designed to shutter ballot drop boxes across the state. Many counties ignored it because it had no basis in state law. In a close race, there may be litigation over the validity of ballots placed on drop boxes.

It’s worth remembering that as many as 1 million Floridians are unable to participate in this election because of a poll tax that Republicans imposed on formerly incarcerated residents.

Georgia

Starts processing mail ballots: Upon receipt

Starts counting mail ballots: Election Day, 7 a.m.

Ballot deadline: Election Day, when polls close

When to expect results: Tuesday night

Georgia’s emergence as a swing state has drawn closer scrutiny to its election machinery, which went haywire in the June primary: Voting machines malfunctioned and some poll workers did not have enough ballots to meet demand. These problems were exacerbated by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who oversaw mass poll closures in disproportionately Black communities while serving as secretary of state.

During Georgia’s early voting period, the voting machines malfunctioned once again, apparently overloaded by the number of people trying to use them at once. These glitches contributed to the monstrously long lines that forced some voters to wait more than 10 hours. In a close race, expect heightened scrutiny of these machines, which are not fully secure—as well as litigation over the accuracy of their tabulations.

Michigan:

Starts processing mail ballots: Nov. 2 (municipalities with more than 25,000 residents), and Nov. 3 (everywhere else)

Starts counting mail ballots: Election Day

Ballot deadline: Election Day, when polls close

When to expect results: Within one week of Election Day

Michigan Republicans have already thwarted an effort to count late-arriving ballots. They also successfully defended a ban on ride-share companies offering discounted rides to the polls. These aggressive efforts to make voting more difficult indicate that the GOP is prepared to litigate its way to a victory in this battleground state. Legislative Republicans have refused to let election officials begin counting votes for Election Day, and it could take several days to tabulate the results. If there is no clear winner on the night of Nov. 3, expect lawsuits seeking to halt the vote count and throw out ballots that haven’t yet been tallied.

Nevada

Starts processing mail ballots: Upon receipt

Starts counting mail ballots: Oct. 19

Ballot deadline: Nov. 10, if mailed by Election Day

When to expect results: Tuesday night or Wednesday morning

Nevada passed a slate of voting reforms in response to the pandemic and now mails ballots to all registered voters. The Trump campaign has repeatedly attempted to prevent the state from counting ballots before Election Day but has failed in both state and federal court. Clearly, Republicans are attempting to delegitimize the vote tabulation process. In a close race, expect Trump to challenge the results by accusing election officials of fraud.

North Carolina

Starts processing mail ballots: Sept. 29

Starts counting mail ballots: Varies by county, but as early as Oct. 20

Ballot deadline: Nov. 12, if mailed by Election Day

When to expect results: Tuesday night

Like Florida, North Carolina is a relatively fast-counting state. This year, however, the State Board of Elections extended the ballot deadline to nine days after the election due to the pandemic. So late-arriving ballots will trickle in for longer than usual. (Voters must still place their ballots in the mail by Nov. 3.) Republicans challenged the board’s deadline extension, but the Supreme Court refused to block it by a 5–3 vote. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s furious dissent may give Republicans ammunition to revive their challenge after the election. If Trump falls short by a few thousand votes, expect GOP operatives to ask a conservative judge to throw out late-arriving ballots.

North Carolina also requires a witness to sign each absentee voter’s ballot envelope. In the weeks before Election Day, county officials reported an alarmingly large number of ballots with missing witness signatures. This problem disproportionately affects racial minorities. The State Board of Elections established a process to notify voters with “spoiled” ballots and help to “cure” them, but Republicans successfully halted it in court. As a result, voters can no longer “cure” a ballot with a missing witness signature; they must simply vote again. In a close race, expect Republicans to bring more lawsuits seeking to prevent voters from casting a second ballot after spoiling their first.

Ohio

Starts processing mail ballots: Oct. 6

Starts counting mail ballots: Election Day

Ballot deadline: Nov. 13, if postmarked by Nov. 2

When to expect results: Tuesday night

Ohio became ground zero for the drop box wars after Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose allowed each county to set up just one ballot drop box. As a result, Franklin County (population: 1.3 million) has the same number of drop boxes as Vinton County (population: 13,000). Voters in heavily populated counties may therefore have to wait for hours to place their ballot in drop boxes on Election Day. The state gives voters until Nov. 10 to cure faulty ballots, and LaRose has expanded his office’s efforts to help with that process. In a very close race, the candidates might contest individual ballots, but don’t expect Ohio to become a hotbed of post-election litigation.

Pennsylvania

Starts processing mail ballots: Election Day

Starts counting mail ballots: Election Day

Ballot deadline: Nov. 6, if mailed by Election Day

When to expect results: Within one week of Election Day

Pennsylvania is the most crucial of all swing states this year. It also has the most unsettled and contested voting rules in the country. In September, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court extended the return deadline for mail ballots to Nov. 6, so long as they were mailed by Nov. 3. Republicans fought that ruling in federal court. On Oct. 19, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block the deadline extension by a 4–4 vote. Nine days later, three conservative justices announced their desire to throw out ballots that arrive between Nov. 4 through 6. Now that Amy Coney Barrett has joined the court, there is a very real chance that SCOTUS will nullify late-arriving ballots in Pennsylvania shortly after the election.

And that’s not the only looming crisis in the state. Pennsylvania Republicans refused to give election officials any lead time to begin processing or counting ballots. Mail ballots won’t even be opened until Election Day, and some counties won’t start counting them until Nov. 4. This trickle of results, combined with the uncertainty over the validity of late-arriving ballots, is a recipe for disaster. In a close race, expect Trump to attack the integrity of Pennsylvania’s election and fight to throw out mail ballots that come in just after the election.

Texas

Starts processing mail ballots: Oct. 22

Starts counting mail ballots: Oct. 30

Ballot deadline: Nov. 4 by 5 p.m., if mailed by Election Day

When to expect results: Tuesday night

Texas is the only battleground state that requires an excuse to vote by mail, so mail ballots won’t play an outsize role in its results this year. (It’s worth noting that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott still restricted residents’ ability to return mail ballots by allowing just one drop box per county, no matter the population.) The more urgent dispute in Texas involves “drive-thru voting,” a system devised by Harris County that lets voters cast a ballot without exiting their cars. Although it was approved by the Texas secretary of state, Republicans have attacked drive-thru voting as illegal. The Texas Supreme Court twice turned away their efforts to shut down drive-thru voting, and a federal judge tossed their lawsuit on Monday, finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing. But the judge also noted that if the plaintiffs did have standing, he would’ve shut down drive-thru voting on Election Day. He also advised Texans not to vote drive-thru to ensure that their votes are “valid.” In a close race, expect Republicans to revive their assault on ballots cast via drive-thru voting.

Wisconsin

Starts processing mail ballots: Election Day*

Starts counting mail ballots: Election Day*

Ballot deadline: Election Day, 8 p.m.*

When to expect results: Within one week of Election Day

Wisconsin held the nation’s most disastrous pandemic election in April. Election officials were unable to process the flood of requests for mail ballots in time, so thousands of voters never received them. Because cities shuttered almost all of their polling places, these individuals were forced to wait for hours in the cold to cast their ballots. The state election board has worked diligently to prevent a repeat of this logistical nightmare, though the Republican-controlled state Legislature refuses to ease voting restrictions to accommodate for the pandemic. (The Legislature has not even met since April.)

Election experts agree that Wisconsin, like Pennsylvania, has the potential for Bush v. Gore–style post-election brawl. That’s because election officials may not begin processing or counting ballots until Election Day. Expect results to come in through at least Wednesday morning, if not later. In a close race, expect Trump to contest the counting of ballots after Election Day.

Correction, Nov. 5, 2020: This guide originally misstated the dates when Wisconsin accepts and begins counting mail ballots, as well as the state’s ballot deadline.

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