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Be patient: This election is probably going to go on a while

A dog named Georgia waits for their owner outside a voting location on Saturday in Charlotte, N.C. It was the last day for early voting in the state.
Sean Rayford
Getty Images
A dog named Georgia waits for their owner outside a voting location on Saturday in Charlotte, N.C. It was the last day for early voting in the state.

Election Day is Tuesday, but with early voting, the more accepted use of mail voting and the prospect of razor-thin races, it's really Election Season.

And Tuesday only marks the beginning of the next phase in that season.

Gird for many of these elections to go on for days, if not weeks. This is all perfectly normal when there are close elections. It doesn't mean that there is fraud — despite the lies about his 2020 loss that former President Donald Trump has pushed and so many candidates he's backed have promulgated.

Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to take back the House. They're in the driver's seat and widely expected to reach that and then some. But the full extent of a GOP wave, if there is one, or whether Democrats pull off the surprise and hold the House, won't be known for a while.

Many of these races are expected to be close and will take a while to count all the vote. There are lots of competitive seats in California, for example. California polls don't close until 11 p.m. ET, so don't expect many of those to be known on election night. In past years, that's been the case, and it's taken a long time to know results — days and weeks.

For the Senate, all eyes are going to be on four states — Pennsylvania and Georgia in the East and Arizona and Nevada in the West. In Georgia, there's a libertarian on the ballot, who very likely will serve as a place for protest vote — meaning neither the Democrat nor Republican in the race might surpass the 50% threshold required to win the election outright.

If that happens, the election would go to a Dec. 6 runoff, which means control of the Senate quite possibly won't be known for a month after Election Day.

Election results often require patience. This one is no different.

People wait in line to vote Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Sean Rayford / Getty Images
Getty Images
People wait in line to vote Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

Recent years have seen a rise in mail voting, and states have different rules for when those mail ballots are due. States have different procedures for when those ballots can be taken out of their envelopes to be processed and tallied, and this can lengthen the count.

Let's look at five states, all with crucial Senate races, where there could be delays and confusion:

Pennsylvania is one of the places we're expecting to see a pretty dramatic shift on Election Night. Vote tallying should be faster this year than in 2020, considering there will be fewer mail-in ballots likely, but those mail ballots will still take longer and will lead to confusion. Beware a "Red Mirage" and a later "Blue Shift." Lots of mail-in ballots will be reported early, and we know that Democrats have been far more likely to say they will be voting early or by mail. That could initially make it look like a Democratic lead, but then in-person ballot results will come in, likely showing Republicans pulling ahead in a close race. Then the rest of the mail ballot results will trickle in later in the evening because they take longer to tabulate and will likely favor Democrats and shift things even more. And Philadelphia simply takes a very long time to report its results. This is what always happens. It is not nefarious.

Wisconsin doesn't allow election officials to begin processing mail ballots until polls open on Election Day. Also, if Milwaukee (high concentration of Black voters) and Dane (University of Wisconsin, younger and more liberal voters) take a longer time to report, then you could see another Red Mirage.

Arizona saw a slow trickle in Trump's favor in 2020 as the hours went on. But others years have seen the opposite. It's unclear which way the shift will go this year, but there will probably be one. The 2020 presidential was called at almost 3 a.m. ET, but the vote counting continued for days and Biden's lead, though it held up, continued to shrink. Ultimately, the state was decided by just 0.3 percentage points, and Arizona has recently switched to automatic recounts for any contest that's separated by 0.5% or less. Arizona has been ground zero for election denialism with counts and recounts and an attempt at putting a fake slate of electors up in favor of Trump. So in addition to the close vote, the challenges and noise that will happen around the legitimacy of the vote could cause even more chaos.

Georgia has seen a huge population shift in Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs that have tilted the political hue bluer in recent years. And those suburbs report their results later than rural counties – so again there could be another Red Mirage here.

Nevada is a similar story to Georgia. It's a growth state, and most of that boom has been in Las Vegas, which is in Clark County, the largest population center in the state and where almost 70% of all the state's votes came from in 2020. Clark and Washoe (Reno), which went for Biden in 2020, count more slowly than the more rural counties that will overwhelmingly favor Republicans. Also, post-pandemic, Nevada is one state that has moved toward mail voting. People still have the option to vote in person, but every resident in the state was mailed a ballot unless they chose to opt out of receiving one.

Keep in mind also that election officials first report unofficial results. Certified results come days, if not weeks, later.

Legal challenges and recounts can also lengthen the time before a winner is determined. Expect that this will go on a while, so patience will be needed in this impatient time.

NPR's Benjamin Swasey contributed reporting. contributed to this story

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Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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