The Insider's guide to Election Day 2020 and beyond

Managing Editor Adam Abadi ('22) collaborated on this article. The Insider gives you the information you need to know heading into what is sure to be a complex and uncertain Election Day and the days and weeks that follow.

Teddy David
November 2, 2020
Election 2020

After a grueling election cycle, Election Day 2020 is finally here, and the Insider staff hopes you voted!

Americans are used to knowing the outcome of the presidential election on election night itself, but all indicators point to slower reporting this year. The count of pandemic-prompted mail-in ballots will drag on for days, or even weeks, after November 3.

Given the unique and uncertain scenario in which we find ourselves, here’s what you need to know to manage your stress and expectations on Election Day and beyond.

What will we know on election night?

Possibly not who will be sworn in as president on January 20.

In one of the most widely reported stories of this election cycle, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a massive increase in mail-in voting compared to past elections. As of Sunday, November 1, 93 million Americans had already cast their ballots either by mail or by in-person early voting – more than two thirds of all votes cast in 2016. 

The catch is that not all state election boards allow their officials to count mail-in ballots as they come in; instead, these states need to wait until Election Day before starting to count mail votes. Among this group are several key swing states that will undoubtedly be crucial in deciding the election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. We will probably not know the winner of these states’ electoral votes until after November 3 – Wednesday at the latest for Wisconsin, and longer for the other two.

However, we may be able to deduce the likely winners of these three states on November 3. Most of the votes from Ohio and Iowa will be counted on election night, and, if either of these states is called for Biden, it would be extremely unlikely for him to lose the demographically comparable and more Democratic-leaning states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Polls point to the fact that more than half of Biden supporters plan to vote by mail, while most Trump supporters plan to vote in person on Election Day. As a result, Trump will likely rack up an early lead in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. We’d then expect Biden to close the gap and, perhaps, overtake Trump in any and all of these states in the days and weeks following November 3.

In fact, some states won’t even have received all valid ballots by November 3, whether or not they are allowed to begin counting them earlier. In Nevada, for instance, a ballot can be delivered as late as November 10 as long as it’s postmarked by Election Day. It’s not clear whether there will be enough of these straggler ballots in key states to make a serious impact on the election’s outcome, but this remains another point of unpredictability in an already unpredictable election cycle.

What indicators should we look for on election night?

Given the different rates at which states count their ballots, the national electoral and popular vote counts will not be the most important predictors on election night.

Instead, we should focus primarily on swing states that allow mail-in ballots to be counted before Election Day. In perennially-close Florida and newly-competitive Georgia, election officials have already been counting ballots for weeks. A similar process exists in North Carolina – another key state for both candidates – although the state also counts mail-in ballots postmarked by November 3 that are received after Election Day.

These states are expected to tally most of their votes relatively quickly, and we will probably know their results on election night. If Biden wins any combination of Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia on November 3, Trump’s hopes for victory will be sharply dashed. These three states are essentially must-wins for the incumbent, who took all of them in his 2016 upset. That’s not to say that there’s no road to 270 electoral votes if he loses one or two, but it would be exceedingly unlikely. On the other hand, even if Trump wins all three, Biden still has a plausible path to victory through the Upper Midwest and Pennsylvania.

As this analysis should make apparent, Biden is strongly favored to win the election, even if it takes a while for the outcome to be clear. The RealClearPolitics polling average puts Biden ahead by 7.6% nationally, and FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast – based on 40,000 simulations of the election – gives the Democrat an 89% chance of winning.

To be sure, Trump pulled off an underdog victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but he is in a decidedly more difficult spot this year; according to FiveThirtyEight, the Republican had a nearly one-in-three chance of victory in the final forecast four years ago. Another Trump win is far from impossible, but it would mean that there was a much more substantial polling error than we saw in 2016.

So, while there are some instructive indicators to look for on election night, don’t get ahead of yourself. Getting final, certified results at a national level will be a much longer process than we’re used to.

What will we learn outside the presidential election?

Beyond the presidential election, the battle for control of the Senate will play a major role in determining the political landscape over the next four years. Democrats will most likely need to win at least four Republican-held Senate seats in order to retake the Senate majority – which the GOP has held since 2014 – depending on how many (if any) Democratic incumbents lose their own races.

Helpfully for the Democratic Party, there are a significant number of incumbent Republican senators locked in competitive races this year, including some in purple and Democratic-leaning states like Arizona, Maine, and Colorado. This makes Democrats somewhat favored to win the Senate, with FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast giving them roughly three-out-of-four odds. However, if Biden wins the presidency but Democrats fail to retake the Senate, Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda could be stalled upon arrival in Congress.

Elsewhere in Congress, the Democratic Party is very heavily favored to retain control of the House of Representatives, perhaps even expanding on their 41-seat “Blue Wave” victories of 2018. If Republicans appear close to winning the House – or even to substantially narrowing the current 35-seat Democratic majority – then something will have gone catastrophically wrong for Democrats.

What could happen after Election Day?

As we’ve already covered, significant numbers of votes are going to be counted well after election night. But these aren’t the only uncertainties on the horizon.

Because of the drawn-out counting and reporting processes – and the fact that mail-in ballots, by all accounts, are more likely to be utilized by Biden voters – we can expect the Trump campaign to challenge the validity of some mail-in ballots in the key, late-counting swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and perhaps others.

Even more chaos could ensue if Trump, buoyed by election-night leads, declared victory based on vote totals from the key states that will not yet have counted most mail-in ballots. If subsequent vote-counting then revealed Joe Biden to have won the election, and Trump still refused to concede on the grounds of the supposed invalidity of many mail-in ballots, we could be faced with a crisis of legitimacy in which two candidates have each declared themselves president-elect. This is a difficult situation to contemplate in a country which has pioneered the peaceful, if not always amicable, transfer of political power over more than two centuries.

To say the very least, we would be in uncharted waters if this came to pass. Even after Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 victory, Southern secessionists didn’t challenge the numerical legitimacy of the vote; they simply saw it as a threat and responded by leaving the Union. A contested 2020 election might trigger a serious constitutional crisis that would likely be settled in the Supreme Court. In this event – no matter what the details of the case and what the justices decide – it will only deepen the nation’s division and will doubtless weaken the perceived mandate of whoever takes the oath of office from the get-go.

The Insider will help you navigate these waters – and any others – if and when we come to them. For now, vote if you haven’t already, and buckle up.

Learn More

FiveThirtyEight – When To Expect Election Results In Every State

FiveThirtyEight – Both Candidates Might Fall Short Of 270 Electoral Votes On Election Night. But How Close Might They Get?

Politico – A Day-By-Day Guide to What Could Happen If This Election Goes Bad

Managing Editor Adam Abadi (’22) is an economics major from Brooklyn, NY with interests in public policy, electoral politics, and sustainability. He has interned for an international human rights organization and an urban environmental nonprofit, and is also involved with the Vassar Sustainable Investment Fund. Adam enjoys playing Scrabble, reading surreal fiction, and playing D&D in his spare time.

Teddy David

Teddy (’22) is a history major and French correlate with an interest in art history. He works as an editorial intern for the International Enforcement Law Reporter, writing on world events from a legal angle. Teddy is from New York City, and he enjoys classical music, reading history, and spending time with family.