Mail-in voting deadlines and state laws barring officials from counting ballots before Election Day mean multiple critical battleground states could remain uncalled for days after the election.
The likely delays in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin raise the potential for post-election chaos at a time when President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE and his allies have sought to sow doubt in the fairness and accuracy of the November election.
Trump has insisted that only results reported on Election Day itself should count toward the final outcome of the presidential race. He’s also alleged that mail-in ballots – especially those that arrive after Nov. 3 – come with an outsized risk of voter fraud.
At the same time, ongoing legal battles in several states have thrown election procedures into a state of uncertainty, with officials and experts warning that dates and deadlines could change in the coming weeks.
Here's a look at key battleground states and how likely they are to experience delays on election night.
Arizona has had a relatively robust absentee voting system in place for years, and the fact that all ballots must be received by Nov. 3 means that there won’t be any late-arriving votes to tip the count after Election Day.
Despite those rules, the state has been slow to count ballots in the past. In 2018 it took more than a week for a winner to be called in the hotly contested Senate race between Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Senate passes infrastructure bill, budget resolution; Cuomo resigns Schumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster MORE.
But this year may be a little different. A new state law allows counties to begin processing and counting mail ballots up to 14 days before the election, which could help ease the burden on officials when it comes to the amount of work they’ll have to do on Election Day.
Like Arizona, Florida has allowed no-excuse absentee voting for years and requires ballots to be received by counties on Election Day. As of Thursday, nearly 1.2 million mail-in ballots had already been cast in the Sunshine State, making up nearly 10 percent of the electorate.
Florida has something of a reputation for chaotic elections. The outcome of the 2000 presidential election came down to the Sunshine State, and a prolonged recount effort that year ended only after the Supreme Court intervened.
But with so much of the electorate expected to vote by mail this year, it appears likely that Florida will have its results reported on election night. Officials can begin processing and tallying mail ballots up to 22 days before Election Day, upping the state’s chance of being called on Nov. 3.
Barring any major court rulings or legislation, Georgia voters will have until Election Day to return mail ballots to county officials. The deadline for election offices to receive ballots had previously been pushed back until after Nov. 3, but a federal appeals court reinstated the Election Day requirement last week.
That decision has garnered criticism from voting rights advocates, who argue that mail ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 should be counted so long as they’re received within three days of the election. But the tighter deadline means that all ballots must be in by the time polls close on Election Day, when officials will begin counting votes.
A delay in the results still looks possible, however, given how the state struggled to count ballots in its June primary elections. Faced with an influx of mail-in ballots, Georgia officials were left with thousands of ballots to tally more than a week after the primaries. A repeat of that debacle appears possible in November.
Michigan is one of the most hotly contested states of the 2020 presidential election, but it appears possible, if not likely, that the state won’t be called for days after Nov. 3.
That’s for two main reasons: a court ruling last month held that mail ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 and received up to 14 days after Election Day must be counted, and election officials won’t be able to start counting ballots until Election Day.
A law signed by Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerGovernors brace for 2022 after year in pandemic spotlight Protesters crash former Detroit police chief's gubernatorial announcement event Former Detroit police chief launching gubernatorial campaign vs. Whitmer next week MORE (D) earlier this month allows election clerks in jurisdictions with at least 25,000 people to start processing mail ballots for 10 hours on Nov. 2, but those ballots won’t be counted until Election Day itself.
The deadline for receiving -inmail ballots could still yet change. Two former Republican Michigan secretaries of state filed a lawsuit late last month challenging the state’s plan to count absentee ballots received after Election Day.
North Carolina voters face a Nov. 6 deadline to get their ballots to election officials, meaning plenty of ballots may still be in transit on Election Day.
Unlike some other states, however, North Carolina allows mail ballots to be processed weeks before Election Day. That means that many ballots cast well in advance of Nov. 3 will be ready to report when polls close, while ballots that arrive later on will have to wait to be counted.
As it currently stands, Pennsylvania won’t have all of its ballots in on election night. The state Supreme Court ruled last month that ballots received up to three days after Nov. 3 must be counted so long as they’re postmarked by Election Day.
But even that timeline is in question. State Republicans are appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it’s unclear whether it will be allowed to stand.
Pennsylvania also doesn’t allow officials to begin counting mail ballots before Election Day, and state lawmakers in the Republican-controlled legislature are unlikely to change that rule in the weeks between now and Nov. 3.
Taken together, that sets up a scenario much like those in Michigan and Wisconsin, where officials won’t be able to start counting until Nov. 3. That will almost certainly create delays in reporting results, potentially leaving Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes hanging in the balance for days.
In an interview with the Morning Call newspaper last month, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar predicted that the “overwhelming majority of ballots will be counted by the weekend” immediately following Election Day.
A federal court ruled on Thursday that voters must have their mail ballots in by Election Day for them to be counted, striking down a lower court ruling that gave the Postal Service until Nov. 9 to deliver the ballots to county officials.
That ruling deals a blow to voting rights advocates and Democrats who had pushed for a bigger window for ballots to be returned. But it also means that all valid ballots will be in hand by Election Day, potentially cutting down on the time it takes to count the votes.
Delays are still possible, however. A federal judge struck down requests from Democrats to allow officials to begin processing and tallying ballots before Election Day. That sets up the potential for days-long delays in the vote-counting process in a state that Trump won in 2016 by fewer than 23,000 votes.