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Athens residents vote early at City Hall and the Board of Elections in Athens, Georgia on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Around noon, voters reported waiting in line for about 30 minutes. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

Athens-Clarke County Board of Elections assistant Lisa McGlaun spent almost 36 hours working and counting ballots for the June 9 primary. It was an election full of surprises with a switch to electronic voting machines, 50% fewer poll workers and a drastic increase in absentee ballots, all against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 caused issues in primary elections across the country, and Athens wasn’t immune to the effects. The Board of Elections counted quadruple its normal number of absentee ballots, McGlaun said. 

Despite the delays, McGlaun said the Athens Board of Elections aims to have all votes counted by the end of Election Day on Nov. 3. The Board of Elections has mailed out 21,051 mail-in, or absentee, ballots and received 9,945, as of Oct. 18. In previous elections, McGlaun said the Board of Elections has received around 5,000 mail-in ballots.

The Board of Elections will begin opening mail-in ballots on Oct. 19 and scanning them on Oct. 28, which McGlaun said will help get faster results. 

“We’re going to have so many [ballots], we have to do this over multiple days,” McGlaun said. 

Though McGlaun hopes results in Athens will be in by midnight on Nov. 4, delayed results in the general election are expected, specifically with the presidential race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Absentee ballots take longer to count, and with more people voting by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a chance Americans may not know the results of some races the morning after election night, according to the Ad Hoc Committee for 2020 Election Fairness and Legitimacy. 

University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said precincts across the country may take longer to report results because each state has different rules about how they process mail-in ballots.

“More people are going to be voting absentee, and some states can’t begin to open the envelopes and get results ready until Election Day or until election night,” Bullock said. 

The U.S. has seen delayed election results before. The 2000 presidential race saw the country wait over a month for results as Florida election officials rushed to recount a close call. If potential delays impede the results of this year’s presidential race, we can look back 20 years to see how the country may react now.

Back to the year 2000

In the 2000 general election, votes for the presidential race were so tight in Florida that the state was forced to recount due to “hanging chads” in the state’s punch card ballots. This meant certain punch cards weren’t tabulated. The recount eventually led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively awarded the election to former Texas Gov. George W. Bush over former Vice President Al Gore over a month after Election Day 2000.

“I was 22 years old at the time, but it was certainly unlike anything I’d experienced in my lifetime,” said Kyle Wingfield, managing editor of The Red & Black during the 2000 election and now the CEO and president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. 

Television coverage of the results had gone between Bush, Gore and the “too close to call” category throughout the evening, and the margins were too thin to make an announcement before The Red & Black’s deadline.

Wingfield said there are two parallels between this year’s election and that of 2000. Americans may not know results the morning after the election, and people may not be ready for potential delays.

“People need to be prepared for chaos,” Wingfield said. “The large number of mail-in ballots ... are going to require us to put pause on declaring a winner.”

However, Bullock said it may not matter if all precincts don’t have their results by election night. If recent polling is accurate, Biden could receive the necessary 270 electoral college votes without a full tally from some states, Bullock said. 

Preparing for results

Though she actively keeps up with election news, sophomore political science and international affairs major Micah Nix said she doesn’t mind waiting longer to receive this year’s election results if they’re more likely to be accurate.

Shaydanay Urbani, an author at the misinformation-fighting organization First Draft, said citizens can prepare for delayed election results by reading up on what this year’s Election Day will look like. 

Urbani also said that waiting for delayed results isn’t something that should cause citizens to worry.

“Giving time to count the vote may be democracy at work,” Urbani said. 

This year’s presidential primary election also gave counties across the nation a chance to learn how to operate with the significant increase of mail-in ballots. 

McGlaun said if future elections have the same amount of mail-in ballots as this year, the Athens Board of Elections would be prepared.

“[The increase of mail-in ballots have] shown us where we need to expand our staff, what that process needs to look like when it’s expanded and how to do it,” McGlaun said. “Each time we have to count this many ballots, we’re a little bit more prepared.”