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Prepare for delays, not fraud: what you need to know about Election Day

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The pandemic has changed the way voting will look this year, with millions of Michiganders voting by mail.

Election Day is in one week, and it’s becoming more apparent that this one will probably be a bit different than previous presidential elections. This is mainly to do with the fact that the country is in the midst of a global pandemic (which is growing increasingly worse), and millions of Americans will be voting by mail.

There is a lot of speculation about what this election will look like. But after worries over election security, warnings from election officials about delays, and demands from the president that the country "must have final total" on November 3, voters will probably be on alert for anything to go wrong.

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Here’s what you need to know before election day.

Mail-in voting is secure, but takes longer to process

Absentee or mail-in voting is a secure, safe way to cast your ballot. In fact, the biggest problem with absentee voting isn’t fraud but rather simple mistakes that invalidate the ballot. (Here’s how to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.)

2.1 million Michigan voters have already submitted their ballots one week from Election Day, and a total of three million voters have requested ballots so far.

Learn more: Here's what you need to know about absentee voting in Michigan

However, it takes longer for election officials to process an absentee ballot than a ballot cast in-person. That’s because the signature on the ballot needs to be cross-checked, the ballot number needs to be verified, and the ballot needs to be removed from the secrecy envelope before the vote can be processed. It’s a few extra steps, but that time adds up when millions of ballots need to be processed.

So with a record number of absentee ballots, officials are expecting a delay in results. But that doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the election.

Elections are often not “decided” right away

Traditionally, the results that are announced on the night of an election are not official results, but rather projections or calls made by news outlets. The Associated Press is the gold standard, and is the source that many outlets, including Michigan Radio, rely on.

The outcome reported on election night is based on early vote totals reported by election officials and the number of in-person versus early votes (the AP no longer uses exit polling to call races).

When you’re waiting for results, keep in mind that precincts report results at varying times, smaller jurisdictions are often faster than larger cities, some places use machines which are faster than paper, and, of course, that absentee ballots will slow everything down.

There are four crucial dates that lead to a final decision every election:

  • November 17: County clerks need to send their vote totals to the Secretary of State
  • November 23: The Board of State Canvassers meets to confirm the election results
  • December 8: The federal “safe harbor” date, when states must settle all post-election legal challenges
  • December 14: The Electoral College meets and formally elects the winner

The key thing to remember on election night is that as more votes are counted, the reported results will change. A race that looks close when the polls close might end up being a runaway, or an early lead might evaporate. None of these shifts should be considered evidence of fraud or misconduct.

If there are results on election night, that’s great. But delayed results do not mean anything is wrong.

There are problems with every election

Running a successful election is a massive feat. Each precinct has its own set of challenges to avoid — from polls opening late to not having enough volunteers to broken voting machines. And unfortunately, there are many systemic issues with the American voting system, but that is a long-running issue, not a specific problem that has been designed to thwart this specific election.

A few problems on election day does not mean the election itself is fraudulent or the results are invalid.

Election Day is on November 3.

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Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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