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When will Tuesday's elections be called? Professors weigh in

For more election coverage from across North Carolina, visit One Vote N.C., a collaborative between The Chronicle and six other student newspapers that aims to help college students across the state navigate the November election.

2020 is anything but an ordinary year, and this week’s elections are no different. 

With record voting numbers predicted and more Americans than ever before casting ballots by mail, the election faces unusual logistical challenges. Although Election Day is Tuesday, it is unclear when the winners will be announced.

“There is a reasonable chance it could be called in a normal time frame, Election Day through early morning,” wrote John Aldrich, Pfizer, Inc./Edmund T. Pratt, Jr. University distinguished professor of political science.

However, he added that “if like last time, Trump wins a more-than-even number of the really close states, it could go for a long time.”

On Election Day, the polls open at 6:30 a.m. and close in North Carolina at 7:30 p.m. Any voter in line by 7:30 p.m. will be able to vote in person. But it is unclear when the results for the statewide presidential, senate and governor’s elections will be announced, and if these results will be immediately accepted by all candidates. 

"It’s pretty likely or probable that we won’t know who won on election night,” said Mac McCorkle, professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy and director of Duke’s Polis: Center for Politics.

More early votes have been cast than at the same point in 2016. Over 4.5 million people have already cast ballots through in-person early voting and mail-in ballots in North Carolina. 

“We have to be very cautious in interpreting early voting numbers,” Sunshine Hillygus, professor of political science, said at a media briefing. “We know from the research that a lot of the people voting early tend to be people who would have voted on election day.”

Mail-in ballots in North Carolina will be accepted until nine days after Election Day as long as ballots are mailed by Election Day, and no ballots are tabulated until Election Day. However, the state begins to process mail-in ballots as they arrive to get them ready for tabulation, rather than waiting until Election Day or after like many other states, so results from North Carolina will begin to take form on election night itself. 

"It looks like [in] Florida and North Carolina ... that a lot of the vote will be in pretty early on election night,” said McCorkle.

How close will it be?

North Carolina and Florida, both of which voted red in the 2016 presidential election, will be important swing states in determining which presidential candidate wins the electoral college. 

"If Biden wins either Florida or North Carolina, that could be a real telltale sign,” McCorkle said. "If not, then it's game on and you get into the Midwest and we could be waiting days, if not weeks.” 

He referenced a recent WRAL poll that predicted a 48-48 split between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden in North Carolina. McCorkle predicted a victory in the state for either presidential candidate would be by at most five to six percentage points. 

"I think it's going to be fairly close. It looks promising to Biden winning rather than Trump, but it's not different from what it was four years ago,” Aldrich said. 

The non-presidential races do not appear to be as close. 

“Cooper is pretty safely ahead. The Cunningham-Tillis race is not one that is firing up imaginations,” said Aldrich. 

In the Senate race, most recent polls show Democrat Cal Cunningham ahead of Republican incumbent Thom Tillis by low to mid-single digits. 

Are there concerns about acceptance of the election results?

The 2016 election was called at 2:30 a.m. Eastern the morning after Election Day, when Donald Trump passed the 270-vote threshold in the electoral college. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton called him at 2:35 a.m. to concede defeat and gave her concession speech at 11:40 a.m., saying that “we must accept this result ... Donald Trump is going to be our president.”

But with all the questions surrounding this year’s election, will candidates accept the election results as readily? 

North Carolinians are familiar with less-straightforward attitudes toward of election results. In the 2016 gubernatorial election, Democrat Roy Cooper beat Republican Pat McCrory by less than 1%. McCrory did not concede until more than a month past election day, on Dec. 5, when a recount of 90,000 votes in Durham County verified that Cooper won.

Before conceding defeat, McCrory alleged voter fraud in 50 of the 100 North Carolina counties. Similarly today, Trump’s recent claims about widespread voter fraud has led some to worry that if Biden wins the election, Trump will not readily concede defeat.

In terms of considering a peaceful transition of power, Aldrich predicted the 2020 worst-case scenario to be a legal battle similar to that of the election of 2000. 

"I think the worst possible scenario is more like a 2000 where it will be fought in the courts. But that requires a close election in a given state—the outcome of that particular state would make the difference between who is elected president,” Aldrich said. “It would take a lot to get to that point. I do think also that the court's decision will be taken as binding and there will be no serious problem about Trump stepping down."

McCorkle expressed concern that the results of the election could lead to voter disillusionment, especially with Trump dismissing worries about the second wave of COVID-19. 

"If there is a transition of power, it could be very messy,” McCorkle said. 

Editor's note: This article was updated to clarify that mail-in ballots in North Carolina are processed before Election Day and tabulated beginning on Election Day. An earlier version implied that ballots were tabulated before Election Day. 


Paige Carlisle

Paige Carlisle is a Trinity senior and a staff reporter for The Chronicle.

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