Why midterms 'election night' will be more like 'election week'

A number of races could be undecided after Tuesday.

November 8, 2022, 5:01 AM

The results of the 2022 midterm elections will almost certainly not be called on election night, but instead in the days and weeks after polls close on Tuesday, according to election experts and officials.

This is normal, they said, because the results of a number of decidedly tight, consequential federal and statewide races will be counted on each state's separate calendar for canvassing early and mail-in votes and ensuing recounts or challenges to results that could further prolong the certification of votes.

"I would highly doubt that we would know who controls both chambers of Congress by the end of Election Day. I think we need to be prepared for an Election Day that will likely stretch over the week," said Ashley Koning, an assistant research professor and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

People wait in line for early voting for the midterm elections at Ponce De Leon Library on Nov. 4, 2022 in Atlanta.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

"It's not like the olden days of us getting results, even if it's late into the night. I think this [getting official results late after Day] is going to be something that becomes a rule instead of the exception."

The process by which American elections are tallied is not new, election officials said, but the timeline for results to become official has swelled in recent years. That's because of changes in American voting preferences, with many states permanently adopting expanded mail-in and early vote options initially enacted during the height of COVID-19 in 2020, coupled with few changes in state law that allow those early votes to be counted sooner and therefore quicker.

"The election does not ever and has not ended on Election Day … the election ends when all the legal votes have been counted and certified," said David Alexander Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University.

"The only thing new is that it's just taking a little bit longer because of the increase in mail-in ballots and failure of some states, Pennsylvania especially, to expand authority to canvass and precanvass mail-in ballots to make sure they could count them as quickly as they could."

A dropbox is pictured ahead of the midterm elections at the City Hall in Mesa, Ariz., Oct. 25, 2022.
Olivier Touron/AFP via Getty Images

Kim Wymaan, the senior election security adviser for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, noted that though news outlets call races on election night, it takes days and weeks to have official results.

"When the polls close, election officials remain in action -- counting, processing, and conducting audits to be sure that the final, official results are accurate," she said.

"It is precisely because of this rigorous counting and verification that voters can and should have confidence that their vote will be counted."

Another large component of the lag in announcing official election results will be the race recounts and candidates who may challenge the results of their contest that may arise after polls close and unofficial tallies trickle in.

And states like Georgia trigger automatic runoff elections between the two top candidates if no one candidate receives over 50% of the vote on Nov. 8. A recount could also be requested by the second-place candidate if the difference between them and the top candidate is not more than 0.5% of the total votes cast in the race.

Given the current polarized political climate, Koenig said she anticipates a number of candidates who will contest results.

"I don't see any candidate is going to go down without a fight this cycle if the results are anywhere near close on either side of the aisle," she said.

In the days leading up to Election Day, several states with particularly competitive races have noted they expect to certify their results after the election.

In Pennsylvania, home to one of the most closely-watched Senate races, acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman told reporters in a briefing on Monday that they don't anticipate having unofficial results for "at least a few days."

"We prioritize accuracy over speed," Chapman said, noting that fully certified results won't come until the Nov 28 deadline under law. In Pennsylvania, counties will participate in "marathon counting," meaning that they can start processing votes at 7 a.m. on Election Day, but counting still must begin at 8 p.m., after polls close.

"The delay doesn't mean anything bad is happening," she said. The public and media should "not expect complete results on election night."

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson waits to address supporters during a campaign stop at the IBEW Local 58 union hall in Detroit, Nov. 5, 2022.
Rebecca Cook/Reuters

In Michigan, it may take until about 24 hours after the polls close before all votes are counted and the unofficial results are reported, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said at a press conference last week.

"Some jurisdictions may be done more quickly, but barring any disruption, we expect it will take until Wednesday late in the afternoon or evening for all jurisdictions to finish counting and reporting their results," said Benson.

Benson added that the state has seen "meritless lawsuits," and warned that "many of the seeds of doubt" will perhaps resurface after Election Day.

"We're seeing the first of what we have seen for years. Meritless lawsuits used to get one's name in the news and gain media attention caused confusion and sow seeds of doubt among voters. While these suits are ultimately resolved by the judges in accordance with the law, voters can expect that many of the seeds of doubt that they will plant will resurface potentially after the election," said Benson.

Arizona -- which features a competitive Senate race and a tight contest for the governorship with Kari Lake, an election denier, as the Republican nominee -- a high density of mail-in ballots may delay the release of official results. A recount is also more likely in Arizona, after the Republican legislature eased the threshold for an automatic recount to 0.5 percent after the 2020 election.

Nevada has given counties until Nov. 12 to receive mail ballots that are postmarked by Election Day, with the secretary of state's spokesperson Jennifer Russell telling the Las Vegas Sun that it could take a few days following the election to announce unofficial results. Counties have until Nov. 18 to certify results.

Nevada voters and candidates can request recounts which may be utilized as the races remain tight.

–ABC News' Averi Harper, Devin Dwyer and Paulina Tam and Luke Barr contributed to this report.

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