Will we know who won on election night? Political science professors say maybe, maybe not

Posted at 2:42 PM, Nov 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-02 19:48:39-05

CINCINNATI — There’s a strong chance that after the polls close on Election Day, the debate on who will be the next President of the United States will remain open.

This year, in some ways, is no different than other years -- there’s always some lag on the official, certified numbers. But there is one major factor in 2020 that’s different: The number of mail-in ballots has increased exponentially, meaning it could take more time before the Presidential race is called.

“You shouldn’t expect to have that answer, but there is a chance you could have that answer," said Northern Kentucky University political science professor Ryan Salzman.

He said the timeline of the outcome depends on how quickly mail-in ballots are tabulated in a few key states, including Florida.

“If Joe Biden wins Florida, Donald Trump probably will not, or it’s very, very low likelihood, that he’ll be able to be reelected as president,” Salzman said.

But if Trump wins Florida, Salzman said, the waters get a little murky.

"He’s going to have to have a Pennsylvania and maybe even one more," Salzman said. "So that would even be including Arizona, along with Florida, and still winning the ones you expect him to win. If he wins Florida, he’ll probably do very well in North Carolina, but he won those last time.”

It’s possible Florida will be called Tuesday night, giving a clear picture of the winner. However, Pennsylvania will be one to watch, as well, and that state doesn’t start processing its mail-in ballots until Election Day, which means it will take a few days to get answers.

“Pennsylvania was always going to be a key state, because in large part the president won that state somewhat unexpectedly (in 2016),” Salzman said. “They wait until the day of the election to begin processing their mail-in ballots. And on top of that there’s already been a lot of disputes around what ballots will be counted, and we can expect some of that is going to go to the courts.”

In the Tri-State, timelines on counting ballots vary. Ohio has until Nov. 18 to finish tabulating all ballots including mail-in, provisional and absentee. Indiana has until 12:00 p.m. on Nov. 16 and Kentucky’s deadline is Nov. 10.

RELATED: Election 2020: When will all the votes be counted?

“Ohio is going to give us a number on election night, but it’s not really the final number,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. “If the election is close enough, the ballots that are still out there could determine the outcome.”

He said people should be patient, keeping in mind that the first tally reported in a state may not be the final tally.

“There’s going to be several rounds, and those rounds are very, very different from each other,” Niven said. “There’s a round where results will be largely based on folks who voted before Election Day. There’s a round later that night based on folks that voted on Election Day.”

Salzman said there’s a possibility voters could know Tuesday, and also a possibility it won't happen, so the best approach may be to live in the moment and enjoy the process.

“We will likely not know this election outcome until at least middle of the day, late day on Wednesday, and I think that might be relatively early.” Salzman said. “Have patience, kind of revel in the spectacle and the ceremony of Election Day. And just take solace in the fact that campaigning is over.”

On election night, viewers will see “% of precincts reporting” on WCPO graphics reporting election results. This year that number will mean something different than in previous years because of the large amount of mail-in ballots that will be counted after election day.

This year, the percentage of precincts reporting will refer only to the tabulation of ballots that were cast on Election Day. It will not include ballots that have yet to arrive through mail at the boards of elections to be counted. As in years past, however, the "% of precincts reporting" will indicate how close we are to local boards of election finishing their work for the night.