Oct. 26 (UPI) -- The results of the Nov. 3 presidential election may not be known until days -- or even weeks -- later as states work to accommodate changes in voter behavior due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With early voting underway, many states are reporting record numbers of votes cast in person and by mail as voters look to maintain social distancing and avoid crowds and long lines at the polls on Election Day.
Experts advise that these changes in voting patterns could bring delays in tallying results.
"It's always been the case that we don't have certified election results on Election Day, that always takes time, but I think there will be some increase in what we call late-arriving ballots -- ballots that were actually postmarked by the deadline and they, by law, are allowed to be received," Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told UPI.
While about half of states require mail-in ballots to be received by election officials by Election Day, 24 states and Washington, D.C. -- including the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina -- will accept ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 3. These states represent 344 of the 538 Electoral College votes to choose the president. It takes 270 electoral votes to win.
Many of the states that accept ballots after Election Day allow at least up to a week for them to arrive. Ohio takes ballots arriving as late as Nov. 13 and Washington state up to Nov. 23.
These deadlines have been the center of legal challenges, as the Supreme Court allowed Pennsylvania to extend the counting of mail-in ballots to Nov. 6, while an appeals court in Michigan, also a swing state, rejected a bid to extend the state's grace period two weeks beyond Election Day.
"If you don't have the absentee ballots to report out, then what you're going to have on election night is mostly going to be whatever happened on Election Day," Weil said. "And because we're going to see this somewhat historic bifurcation of who votes when, that could mean some shifting results throughout the night and the days that follow."
Also at issue is when states are allowed to begin processing ballots, as many do not permit election officials to begin handling mail-in ballots until the polls have closed.
A total of 31 states do not permit absentee ballots to be counted before Election Day, with most not allowing counting before 8 p.m. that day and North Dakota and New Hampshire specifically stating counting may not begin until polls close.
"The concern is that if the election officials have to start tallying all the last day of voting ballots and then also have to tally these mail-in ballots all together, then it's going to take them days," Chad Dunn, co-founder and co-director of the UCLA Voting Rights Project, told UPI.
Dunn said, however, that many states have taken steps to adapt to the influx of mail-in ballots. Arizona and Florida, he noted, are prepared to tabulate most of their ballots by the time polls close.
"If we get into a circumstance where it's down to one or two states, and those states are taking days and days to tabulate their votes, then there's opportunities for mischief there. But it's got to be sort of a parade of things that go wrong to end up in that spot," he said.
Mail-in voting has been encouraged by health officials, due to COVID-19, and some states have relaxed laws around absentee voting to allow more people to vote by mail. President Donald Trump, who votes absentee in Florida, has regularly sought to undermine the legitimacy of mail-in ballots by alleging widespread voter fraud. But FBI Director Christopher Wray, as well as numerous studies on the issue, have said there is no evidence.
Another potential cause for delay are the provisional ballots given to voters at the polls. That's done if their eligibility cannot be confirmed or, in some states, if they choose to vote in person after requesting a mail-in ballot.
Weil said many who registered to vote by mail earlier in the pandemic but changed their minds, shaken by Trump's rhetoric, may be given provisional ballots.
Those can place strain on election workers, increased lines at in-person polling places and delay the overall timeline for election results as provisional ballots are counted last.
"They're counted after all of the election night, early voting and absentee voting is done. So a sizable increase in provisional ballots could also slow down the process," Weil said. "Hopefully, these things aren't going to be massive increases. But on the margins and in close races, where you have to wait for everything to come in, it is certainly going to condense the amount of time we have after Election Day for challenges and recounts."
2020 has seen a surge in early voting. While the official numbers from those votes will not be available until Election Day, candidates can infer information about how votes are being cast based on voter registrations.
Amy Dacey, executive director of the Sine Institute of Policy and Politics at American University and former CEO of the Democratic National Committee, said this information can guide candidates on how to spend their time during the days leading up to Nov. 3.
"That and polling can be an indicator of if you need to move resources around in the final weeks to different states to boost some of the turnout or to help you in places where you need it," she said. "Also, there's no guarantee of knowing who's going to show up on Election Day. You have to take in a lot of factors in these final weeks to see what battleground states are essential to getting to the 270 electoral vote number."
No matter the results on election night and any challenges or other issues in the following days, Dacey highlighted two days for voters to watch when it comes to determining the presidential race: Dec. 14, when the Electoral College meets to vote, and Jan. 6, when Congress votes to certify the election.
"Somebody giving a victory speech or not willing to concede does not make that decision," she said. "Those two dates are very important in this process and certainly archives, the Federal Register, individual states are all involved in that process and certainly Congress moving forward."