Addressing your worries: What happens when polls close, and is it safe to speculate on the timeline of results?

With election day underway, a big topic of conversation is whether we will find out the results today. In a typical election year, results for a large number of states come in right after polls close, and by the time California polls close, we have our confirmed winner. 

However, this election is anything but normal. With a large number of mail-in ballots being used to vote this year, experts are warning that we might not know the confirmed results of the election until several days after the election. 

Let’s break it down…

What happens when polls close?

Once polls close, a poll worker stands at the end of the line and ensures that everyone who arrived before the polls closed got to vote. After this, poll workers confirm that the number of ballots displayed on the voting machine equals the number of voters checked in. The poll workers then check and double-check that every ballot was counted, including all absentee ballots. If they have more absentee ballots to count, they do this before printing results. Once the poll workers are certain that the ballots are counted, they print the paper results and announce the results for that polling location to the local board of elections. 

How/when do mail-in ballots get counted?

When mail in ballots are received, they need to be manually removed from the envelopes and verified by a poll worker. The timeline of this process varies by state to state. For example, in New York, mail-in ballots are processed and counted as soon as they are received. In other states, the process can not begin until a week or a few days before the election, with several states (such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Alabama, etc) not allowing mail-in ballot processing to occur until the day of the Election. For this reason, experts are suggesting we may not have results from Pennsylvania (a key swing state) tonight. 

Additionally, in some states (including Pennsylvania), as long as your ballot is postmarked by November 3rd, it will be counted. Even if it comes in a few days after Election Day – this may mean that the numbers presented to us on Election Day or even a few days after will continue to be adjusted as final votes get counted. 

How does early-voting come into play?

According to Pew Research, “As of Oct. 28, more than 75 million voters already had cast ballots.” This is an unprecedented number of ballots cast in early voting, which could affect how long we have to wait to find out the results. If the margins are big enough, and there is a landslide win for either candidate in a number of key states, this may set the stage for who the winner is and how soon we will find out. 

Is it safe to speculate whether we will know the results tonight?

To put it simply, no.

We can guess about whether we will know on Tuesday night or even Wednesday morning, but a lot of factors are pointing to that not being the case. This is an election happening in the midst of a Pandemic. Unprecedented wait times for in-person voting, and similarly unprecedented mail-in ballots are enough clues to suggest we may not know for a few days. At the same time, we will most likely know a number of states on election night, and those states may help us better understand which pathways are still available for either candidate to reach 270. Anything less than a landslide in a number of key states will most likely result in longer wait times for an official announcement of a confirmed winner. 

Instead of speculating, we all need to do our part and vote. 

After voting, once the polls start closing, the information will start to become clearer on when we can expect to know.  

Could someone prematurely claim victory before all the ballots are counted?

Not officially, no. In U.S. elections, the official vote for the President comes from the electors, not the people.

The number of electors is equal to the number of Senators & Representatives each state has. These are actual people who may be state or local officials, party activists, celebrities, or just ordinary citizens. The electors get together on December 14th and officially cast their ballot for President. Don’t get nervous though, the electors typically don’t go rogue, and they vote for their states winner (in 32 states, plus DC, there are actually laws to make sure this happens). Before these electors get together on December 14th, each state has until December 8th to resolve any contested results. 

No matter what is assumed to be happening on November 3rd, there is well over a month for states to figure everything out and report the true and accurate results to the electors. 


You most likely still have questions, but in an effort to avoid any accidental misinformation or false sense of relief, this post is based on facts and any speculation is marked in blue. At the end of the day, the uncertainty is what keeps us on our toes. We want to be able to unwind after this day, and say that no matter what the results are, at least now we know. Unfortunately, this isn’t something that we can guarantee today. Avoid searching on the internet for speculative results, take a deep breath, hold it for 3 seconds, and let it out. 

You did it, you voted, you became engaged in your country’s politics, good for you. 

When the results are out and confirmed by multiple reliable sources, you can come back here for a break down. Until then, comfort yourself and others and just breathe



Copy editing by Megan Lachman


Good source for election news & coverage: 

Make sure to follow @casuallypolitical on Instagram for breaking news & new post updates!

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