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What we're likely to know about results on Election Night

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in New York's primary election at a polling station inside Yonkers Middle/High School, June 23, in Yonkers. Credit: AP/John Minchillo

Be patient on Election Night. Counting returns might take longer than any time in recent political history.

With a record number of absentee and mail-in ballots cast this year and a hodgepodge of laws on when states begin counting those votes, the Associated Press and the TV networks might not be able to call the 2020 presidential election as quickly as times past.

Exactly what we will know before going to bed is a little uncertain.

It might be an adjustment for an increasingly "on-demand" culture that wants movies, music, food and other items almost immediately.

Here are some key things to know about counting and calling the race as Election Day nears:

States vary widely on how quickly absentee ballots are processed and counted.

Some 21 states can begin "pre-processing" ballots — verifying signatures, flattening ballots to slide through an electronic scanner — as soon as they arrive at the local election board. This includes New York.

Another 27 can pre-process at a date set before Election Day. This can range from late September in Florida to the election eve in Michigan.

Four states — including the crucial states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — don’t begin pre-processing until Election Day.

Swing states will finish earlier than others.

Florida, Arizona and other states that start processing early could have results Election Night. North Carolina has indicated it will have "98-99"% of the votes tabulated within hours of the polls closing. Iowa says it will have preliminary if not final results then too.

Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota have indicated they could have results by the next day.

Michigan officials have said they would have results by Friday, three days after the election.

Networks, wary of a 2000 repeat, say they value credibility over speed.

Remember 2000? Networks called Florida — that year’s make or break state — for Democrat Al Gore initially. A few hours later, they switched to Republican George W. Bush. Gore called to concede, then retracted it when even more information came through.

In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court halted the recount and Bush, with the slimmest of leads when the counting stopped, prevailed.

"I think 2000 still sort of lingers over everyone," Fox News Media president Jay Wallace told Reuters.

This year, the networks are promising caution. Reuters reported that all executives from all five networks say they are focused on restraint and transparency about what is known and unknown.

Election night "is not going to be about storylines or narratives or projections or predictions," NBC News President Noah Oppenheim. "It’s going to be about: ‘What do we know in any given moment?’ and staying firmly focused on only those facts."

Networks are getting voter-return info from different providers — for the first time.

Following the 2016 election, AP and Fox News broke off from a national election consortium to develop their own system for counting the vote. Their method involves telephone and online surveys with voters in the days leading up to the election, combined with Election Night tabulations as they happen.

The three other broadcasters, ABC, CBS and NBC, remained in the consortium with CNN. They will rely on exit polls and early tabulations.

That could lead to different outlets "calling" a state for Trump or Biden before the others.

"We all take a similar approach, but we all have tweaks around the edges on this stuff. It’s certainly possible that, yeah, they could call some races before we’re ready," AP’s Julie Pace told Slate.com. "It’s also possible that we’ll call races before they’re ready."

Primary results took forever this year. Close down-ballot races could be delayed, too.

Besides president, voters are choosing members of Congress and state legislatures. And there’s no exit polling or online surveys to help quickly determine winners in those contests.

Finalizing congressional primaries in New York took more than a month — even in some races that weren’t all that close.

So, because of all the absentee ballots, be prepared for some congressional and state legislative races to linger a while before a winner is determined.

On Long Island, Nassau and Suffolk counties won’t begin counting ballots until seven days after Election Day. Up for grabs are five seats in Congress, nine in the State Senate and 22 in the State Assembly

"It’s very unlikely we are going to be able to declare winners on Election Night," Suffolk County Republican Elections Commissioner Nick LaLota said during a Newsday webinar. "I want to caution voters on what expectation to have on Election Night."

Election night running totals could differ from final tallies.

There has been plenty of speculation that in some states where Democrats have embraced mail-in voting more than Republicans, in-person Election Day voting could show Trump ahead — only to be surpassed by Biden days later. Or vice versa.

The news outlets are saying they will make calls on states only when the data is clear — and not when a campaign tries to declare itself a winner.

They also are stressing there might not be an ultimate "call" that night.

"We’ve been trying to really just hammer home this idea that it’s OK if there’s no winner on election night," AP’s Pace said. "That’s not going to probably mean that there was some kind of widespread fraud here."

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