Election night 2020: What to expect

Penn professors set expectations for election night returns and weigh challenges that may lay in wait.

Map of United States that reads 'Elections,' 'I voted today,' and 'Breaking news'

Election nights in the U.S. are typically characterized by countdown clocks for poll closings, giant touch screens loaded with voting data, and broadcasters who look as anxious as their audience on the other side of the screen.

Some of that, this year, will change. But some of it might not—or at least not to the degree that is speculated. 

Theories and questions from critics and commentators abound in the run-up to the election: “What about the ‘red mirage’ that could indicate a Republican win on election night when same-day votes are tallied? How many weeks will this election count drag out? What will reporters be basing their projections on?”

The questions go on and on. But the likelihood, says John Lapinski, a professor of political science, director of the Elections Unit at NBC News, and director of the Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, is that voters will have a lot more of these questions answered—or on their way to being answered—on Election Day than they’re being led to suggest.

“We will be able to tell viewers a lot about the state of the race. It may be that one candidate is ahead in the raw vote, but once we model the data ‘this is how we think it’s going to go.’ It’s not like we’ll be sitting on raw vote numbers without interpretation,” says Lapinski. “Candidates may want to make claims about data, whether Republican or Democrat. I don’t listen to that and certainly it has no impact on how we call races. At NBC News, we’ll be putting forward where we think the race is based on our analysis and won’t call races until we are at least 99.5% certain in a call.”

Lapinski clarifies that a few assumptions about election results are just not true. One sticking point, he says, is the idea that all Election Day reports will initially douse the map in red. 

“A number of states report early vote first. We saw in 2016 that Hillary Clinton was up in the vote in Florida first, and then she lost that state,” Lapinski says. “She did better with the early vote, and several states dump early vote first.”

Because states like Florida process early votes ahead of time, allowing them to be counted faster, that means it’s possible for some states on Election Day to initially look like a win for former Vice President Joe Biden when that may not be true, just as it is possible some states could paint the early illusion of a win for President Donald Trump. The “red mirage,” then, relies on false assumptions, he says. 

Lapinski also adds that even in scenarios where early vote is not yet counted, like in Pennsylvania, there are modeling techniques to analyze what it might look like going forward. 

“If we know we’re missing a certain amount of absentee vote, we build it into models,” Lapinski says. “When we characterize and tell stuff, we’re not looking just at raw vote. [Critics] think we don’t understand election data and that’s not how we do this analysis.”

Other points to note, says Lapinski: all of the Election Day vote should come in as usual; the data so far, through examining voter files, does show that Democrats are more likely than Republicans and others to vote through absentee ballots; and exit polls, he emphasizes, are never used to call tight races and are only used to characterize what is on voters’ minds as they vote—plus, to call contests that have a clear winner, as tends to be the case in states like New York and California. 

All of that in mind, Lapinski acknowledges there could be a drawn-out election count if the race is close. 

“If by election night I haven’t put in checkmarks in, say, North Carolina, Florida, or Arizona, and it’s 5 a.m. with ‘The Today Show’ starting, it’s not like we won’t know anything but you’ll know the race is really close,” he says. “You’ll know that it’s going to be a dogfight and go awhile. It may go more than days; it may go a long time, potentially. It just depends on the spread.”

The overarching concern, says Rogers Smith, a professor of political science in the School of Arts & Sciences, is what might happen, rhetorically, in the gap between election night and the period where the election is not yet definitively declared.

“One [concern] is that some states permit votes to come in after the election as long as they’re postmarked by the date of the election, so there are several states that don’t expect vote totals until Wednesday or Friday until after the election,” Smith says. “There’s also the possibility of many more lawsuits—over 300 have already been filed challenging election procedures around the country—and I think the odds of further litigation by Democrats or Republicans is very high. That may mean the election results are disputed, so that we won’t have a clear result until those disputes are resolved.”

Smith adds that his concern is not the reporting of results, but what political actors do with them. Especially, looking back to Election Night 2000, if there is confusion between networks over who won a particular state that is critical to the election.

“We have no doubt [network analysts] will do a superb job; our concern is the response of both political actors and their supporters, and one thing 2000 does indicate, and subsequent elections indicate, is different networks may make different calls at different times,” Smith says. “Some states may get called sooner than the other, and those may be disputed.”

The risk, he says, is the exacerbation of political divides. In an op-ed for The Guardian, Smith and professors from around the country, all former presidents of the American Political Science Association, called on networks to create a nonpartisan election commission to navigate when networks can call results, to ensure reporting happens simultaneously. He says that’s unlikely to happen at this late stage, but supports it as an idea for the future.

It would be, he says, “one log on the fire feeding disputes that you could take away.”

Ideally, of course, no reporting would happen until all of the vote has been counted. The trouble with that?

“It’s our desire to know,” says Smith. 

“This [desire] is a product of the modern media,” he goes on to explain. “It was not at all uncommon up through the 1940s for election results to take some time to compile, so the winner of the election was not announced overnight in many instances, if you go back to 19th century and into the early 20th century. It’s only with the rise of network coverage that you begin to get the calling of election on election night and competition to be the first to call the election.”

The most infamous instance predated television with the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, which did not account for results from California. But, Smith says, TV has only made that competitiveness worse. And now social media probably adds yet another log into the fire, says Smith, though he notes he is wary of having restraints on voter commentary about election night winners.

Yphtach Lelkes, an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication with a secondary appointment in the Department of Political Science, points to market-based media as the cause of this need-to-know election culture. 

“CNN and other cable news outlets have mastered the art of creating a cinematic experience on Election Night, replete with suspense and holograms. Putting scores up on a board, elections needles, and other tools feel more like a game show or ‘Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve’ than a somber democratic event,” Lelkes says. “I blame market-based models of news, where journalists are incentivized to get as many eyeballs as possible in order to drive up advertising revenue.”

Ultimately, what election night looks like—and whether it develops into an Election Week or Month—will depend on the spread of votes and what is contested. One point of agreement among all three professors, though: Early voting is probably here to stay.

“It’s hard to take away something that people like, once they have it,” says Lelkes. “Economists call this the endowment effect. Mail-in voting is easy, and I predict that it will be widely [adopted].”