We May Not Know Who Won On Election Night, And That's OK Mail ballots take longer to process than votes cast in person. So, despite what some politicians may say, experts say it's not a sign of nefarious activity when results take days to come in.

This November, Election Night Could Stretch Into Election Week Or Month

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We turn now to voting by mail as we head into November, mostly as a result of the pandemic. That will change how Americans are able to vote. But as NPR's Miles Parks reports, it may also change when we know who won.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: On the night of Pennsylvania's June 2 primary, things looked bleak for Nina Ahmad. She was running in the crowded primary field for the statewide auditor general position. If she won, she would become the first woman of color to be nominated for a statewide executive position. But things weren't looking good. She trailed by tens of thousands of votes, and supporters started reaching out to her, saying it was a good try.

NINA AHMAD: A lot of people were worried. They emailed like, what's going on? She lost. I'm so sorry. And I said, just hold your horses.

PARKS: Ahmad is the former deputy mayor of Philadelphia and also a scientist. Naturally, she wanted to wait for all the numbers. The election night results mostly reflected the totals from the western part of the state. But Ahmed's base was in the east in vote-rich Philadelphia, which was still counting votes as of yesterday. It was a full week after election day before she took the lead. And it was nine days after Election Day when she finally declared victory.

AHMAD: I might be coming across - oh, she's calm and collected. No, that's not true, but I think what I'm learning from this is that you have to trust the process.

PARKS: As states across the country transition to more male voting, it's been a similar story with results coming days and weeks after voting is complete. And election experts, like Nate Persily of Stanford University, say voters need to be patient in November.

NATE PERSILY: We really need to get into a mindset that we will not know who the winner of the election is on election night.

PARKS: The biggest reason for the delays is that mail ballots take longer to process than in-person votes. Officials need to verify signatures, open envelopes. And in many states, including Pennsylvania, much of that can't even begin until Election Day. Now, it's not inherently a problem. It doesn't mean anything's going wrong with the election or the tabulation. In fact, those safeguards are actually in place to protect against fraud. But what keeps experts like Persily up at night is that if voters don't understand that, the election becomes fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

PERSILY: In some ways, this is the worst year to have a pandemic that affects election administration because we were already worrying about disinformation and loss of confidence. And so now we have the additional challenge to voter confidence that's posed by the possibility that all kinds of books are going to be counted after Election Day.

PARKS: This scenario has played out multiple times already in just the past two years. After the 2018 midterms, Republicans, including President Trump, questioned the legitimacy of votes that were counted after Election Day in California, Arizona and Florida because they skewed more towards Democrats. Many experts worry the same thing will happen again this year. The problem, according to election officials, is that expectations haven't been set correctly.

KATHY BOOCKVAR: The headlines that say this is a disaster if there's a delay - that's not right.

PARKS: Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.

BOOCKVAR: If we all anticipate that accurate vote counts with a higher volume by mail or for any reason because of a pandemic or because of civil unrest - if it takes longer because it takes longer to make sure the count is accurate, then that's the opposite of a disaster.

PARKS: On the contrary, she said it's a sign that election officials are doing their job and counting every single vote. Miles Parks, NPR News.

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