Princeton Election Consortium

Innovations in democracy since 2004

Nov 03: Biden 342 EV (D+5.3% from toss-up), Senate 53 D, 47 R (D+3.9%), House control D+4.6%
Moneyball states: President AZ NE-2 NV, Senate MT ME AK, Legislatures KS TX NC

Mailing it in?

September 14th, 2020, 1:32pm by Sam Wang


This year, how long might we have to wait to find out the results to the Presidential election? The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled laws and policies for 2020 for processing and counting absentee and mail-in ballots. By combining them with current polls, we can get an idea of what we will know on the evening of November 3, Election Night.

This is important because Trump is riling up his base with talk of not accepting the election results. He has made false claims of security risks associated with voting by mail. If close states report early counts of in-person votes with him in the lead, and that lead takes days to disappear as all the votes are counted, that could cause unrest. Could it be like Florida 2000, except more like Wisconsin/Michigan/Pennsylvania 2020?

142 electoral votes (EV) come from states that do not start processing absentee/mail-in ballots until Election Day or the day before. Another 143 EV come from states showing a race closer than 5 percentage points.

Quite a lot of states do not allow absentee/mail-in ballots to be processed until Election Day or the day before. In past years this has been less of an issue. But this year, it is possible that a great majority of votes will be cast via the mail. And there’s a huge partisan divide: in surveys, those votes heavily favor Joe Biden (D), while in-person votes favor President Donald Trump (R). In states where in-person votes are counted and reported first, Trump might appear to be ahead, but the true result would not be known for days.

If we fill in the above map with the likely results from states that aren’t in much doubt, the picture becomes clearer:

By the evening of November 3, Biden will be the likely winner in states totaling 227 electoral votes, while Trump will have won 116 electoral votes. In addition, counting may be nearly done in a number of states where polls currently show the race within 5 percentage points. In Florida, which allows ballots to start being processed 22 days before Election Day, Biden currently has a lead of 3 points (median of 8 polls over the last two weeks). If he wins Florida, that’s 256 electoral votes.

Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia are all near-tied at the moment. Biden would only need one of them to get to 270. But what if Trump won them all?

Finally, there are four states where the absentee/mail-in count will only begin on November 2 or 3: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. Three of those states were won unexpectedly by Trump in 2016, putting him over the top to win that election. They add up to 52 electoral votes in all. If the election is close, this is where the drama will be.

In one good sign for an orderly count, Wisconsin took a responsible approach to its primary in April, in which 80% of the votes were cast by mail. Final results were not announced until the following week. That was a wise approach, and likely avoided undesirable drama. Hopefully they and these other states will do likewise in November.

See our previous post on the state-by-state risk of interference with vote-counting.

Tags: 2020 Election · President

12 Comments so far ↓

  • George Peterson

    Consensus seemed to me that NC was likely callable as well, considering ballots being able to load into tabulators etc. We know there are possibly more votes to come after Nov 3 since they can be accepted for a few days after, but NC is possibly also one we’ll know or know is close. https://www.wcnc.com/article/news/local/timeline-of-how-and-when-absentee-ballots-will-be-sent-and-counted-in-nc/83-104938f6-5719-488b-b70f-e5866a1025bd

    • UserFriendly

      Polls have NC as being one of the closest races and that link says final results won’t be available until friday the 13th (lol). They won’t even have all the ballots until at least the 6th, and if those are heavily Democrat there is a very good chance they cause the state to flip.

    • JKF

      NC is likely to be fairly orderly, but not callable., since mail-in ballots can be accepted after election day. NC has a strong tradition of early, in-person voting, and many mail-in voters seem to be getting their ballots in early. Democratic voters tend to vote early here, while Republicans, as elsewhere, prefer to vote on election day.

      Mail-in ballots and early-in person votes are tabulated in similar ways, and are counted early if they arrive early. In the past, before the early votes are tabulated, the Board of Elections releases numbers for early votes cast by Democrats and Republicans. My recollection is that in 2016 the numbers didn’t favor Democrats as strongly as they should have.

      In other words, we’ll know by the end of election night if Trump has a chance. It’s 50-50, but there’s a significant chance that Biden will look OK early, and if he does, he’ll be very likely to win.

  • andrew cohen

    Good note — more responsible than most, especially the disappointing 538 article this am “What If Trump Loses And Won’t Leave?”. Question: Are’t you ignoring likely Biden wins in AZ and NV? If Biden wins NV and AZ and Florida — and this may be dependent on Biden’s ability to address the Miami disinformation campaign directed at the ex Cuban population, then he is over 270, vastly lowering the importance of the three rust belt states. Thoughts?

  • larry

    Is it just me, or is it very difficult to navigate this site? There are 5 entries under “optimize your effort” in the top right, but I cannot see how to use any of them to get information about where I should put my effort/money. For example, the 3rd link, on the senate, explains the whole process and ends with this paragraph: “Assuming that donations pay for activities that move votes, these rankings tell us where donations will have the largest impact on Senate control. Use the ActBlue link (for Democrats) in the sidebar, or the WinRed link (Republicans), to give based on these calculations.” Sounds great – but where are those rankings? This is not the first time I have looked for this. Please help me, and everyone else, out!

    • Sam Wang

      Hi, Larry. It’s not just you. I agree, things are hard to navigate around here.

      There’s a new site design that’s been slowly moving forward. It needs a designer to really focus on it. There’s a new design coming together (newer WordPress), but that will also need a designer to really focus on it. Haven’t found that person yet, perhaps because I don’t know what skills to look for.

    • Brent

      It is confusing, I suggest you use the links on the left hand side – if you use the link labeled “View all state” under the three Senate graphs, you will get the rankings. If you don’t want to look there… here is the link: https://election.princeton.edu/senate-race-voter-powers-by-state/

  • Michael D Tiemann

    Sam, this is so helpful–THANK YOU. I really hope that Steve Kornacki revamps his “big board” schtick completely to acknowledge these facts and to not have the goal of being among the first to call anything. This will be a time for responsible, reserved, well-researched reporting. You are lighting the path…

  • ArcticStones

    As has been widely reported, Roger Stone and others have talked openly about “confiscating ballots”. Hopefully there will be sufficient security, and integrity, to prevent that.

    BUT, if worst comes to worst and armed Trump supporters interfere with the counting of mail-in or other ballots – and perhaps even destroy ballots from Democratic-leaning precincts – what do the election laws say about the election results for the state(s) in question?

    Are the voters whose ballots might be destroyed effectively disenfranchised?

    Or does the law open up for re-opening mail-in and in-person voting in the impacted areas?

  • Geoffrey Parker

    At 71, amid the COVID crisis, I will vote by mail, but I would vote in person at my regular polling place, a church, if I could do so outdoors. My question is: Do you have any idea why no one is talking about voting outdoors at polling stations as a way to reduce the health risks to voters, poll workers and poll watchers? If helpful, tents could be erected. This approach might not work at every polling place, but it seems feasible for many. I appreciate that this question may not by within your expertise, so I invite anyone’s thoughts. Best Regards.

  • Art Bochner

    I am very pessimistic about Biden’s chances in Florida. The African American community is not showing up (thus far) and the Trump has been running ads in Spanish on Hispanic talk-radio for weeks. Florida is notoriously hard to poll; then you have the older Cuban (reluctant) immigrants who have never forgiven the Democrats for Kennedy’s broken promise. On the other hand, Georgia is trending in the right direction thanks to Stacey Abrams.

  • A. Netliner

    Excellent article— gives a clear roadmap for the night of November 3.

    I am wondering about the Pennsylvania outlook, because only 34% of its 2016 vote count has voted as of October 30— well below the early voting national average of 62%. If it is correct that Democrats vote early and Republicans vote on Election Day, it is quite possible that Trump could carry the state.

    On the other hand, Texas might overperform for the Democrats. The early vote in Texas now exceeds the total 2016 vote, and ~600,000 more voters in the 18-29 age bracket voted in 2020 than in 2016.

Leave a Comment