Not surprisingly, the recent news about the muddled finish in the GOP Iowa caucuses has got people talking about what it means to say an election is “over”. To an election official, an election is over when the outcome has been certified according to applicable state or local law. At that point, the process for that election is “final-final” and in the books. That’s why election administrators are so insistent about calling Election Night returns “unofficial” returns; experience teaches that lots of factors – including everything from math errors to multiparty litigation – can make the Election Night results turn out to be incomplete or incorrect.
To candidates, campaigns and the media, however, an election is usually “over” on Election Night. At that point, the running narrative – horse race, policy debate, or something in between – is generally seen to be resolved and peoples’ attention moves on to next steps: how a candidate will handle victory/defeat, what the outcome means for one or more running policy debates – even who will (and won’t) be a candidate in the NEXT election.
The challenge, of course, is to find a way to bring these two views into closer harmony. Just about every election cycle, one or more administrators gets into hot water because Election Night returns weren’t made available fast enough – starving an audience hungry for news. When that happens, I’m generally sympathetic to those who say we needn’t rush the election process and that everyone concerned needs to be more patient about waiting for the official outcome.