Most Americans assume that by the wee hours of tomorrow, the national media will declare (unofficially, but still decisively) either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump our next president. Of course, the 2000 election showed that the result might not be settled so quickly. Considering how tight the polls have been, one or two battleground states may be too close to call Wednesday morning. That would be good news for Hillary Clinton’s chances. She’ll probably take more of the mail-in and provisional ballots that can’t be counted until the days and weeks after the election. Whatever her vote share tonight, it will probably increase in the weeks to come. Let us explain. For election administrators, 2000 was a wake-up call. Prompted by the controversial Bush v. Gore decision, states created uniform counting standards, which had been contested during the Florida recount. Reforms include safeguards that protect voters whose names were improperly removed (or never added) to registration lists, and procedures to ensure overseas citizens’ and service members’ votes will be handled equitably. But some of those election administration changes make it much more likely that millions of votes won’t be counted until the days and weeks following Election Day.
Why? For two main reasons. First, more votes are now cast by mail. In 2000, approximately 10 percent of ballots were sent by mail. That had nearly doubled, growing to 19 percent, by 2012. In 2016, we expect that to be well over 20 percent. Some of these are tallied on election night, but not all. Many states allow absentee ballots to be counted if they are postmarked by Election Day.
Second, the Help America Vote Act passed in 2002 mandated provisional voting, which allows voters whose registration is questioned to still cast a ballot. That ballot is not counted immediately. It’s put in an envelope, much like an absentee ballot, and counted only if that voter’s registration is verified later. Resolving provisional ballots can take days or, as happened in this year’s California primary, weeks.
According to statistics from the federal Election Assistance Commission, in 2012, voters cast at least 2.7 million provisional ballots. The two states with the most provisional ballots, California and New York, aren’t battleground states. But the third and fourth-ranked states — Ohio and Arizona — are. These “overtime” ballots tilt toward the Democrats