The Concept of “Election Night”

Across America, voters either mailed in their absentee ballots, chose to participate in early voting, or cast their ballot on election day. After voting in whatever method they chose, citizens across the country prepared their snacks and beverages for “Election Night” 2020. Steve Kornacki of MSNBC prepared his rolled papers and “the big board” for his non-stop and dedicated coverage of the election results. After Election night, calling and explaining the results county by county, Kornacki took his first break Wednesday at noon. Americans in every corner of the nation gathered around TVs and computers to watch the results pour in, anxiously anticipating the final results. While the rhetoric of “Election Day” and “Election Night” was frequently used, it was inaccurate and provided false hopes for rapid results. Waking up Wednesday morning without a determined result did not indicate an election failure; instead, it meant democracy was prevailing. 

Before the first ballot was ever cast in the 2020 election, news outlets reported that results would take longer to be announced, mainly due to increased use of mail-in voting and record early voting turnout. Going into election night, America needed to accept the likelihood that a new President would not be declared by the time the sun rose on Wednesday. 

This raises the question, when is the election customarily called? 


In the 2016 election, between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the first results were released at 7 PM EST. Throughout the night, as polls closed and votes were counted, state results were announced, indicating a clear winner. Ultimately, at 2:48 AM on November 9, CNN declared Donald Trump the winner in a tweet stating, “BREAKING: Donald Trump will win the White House, making him the 45th US president, CNN projects.” 


The 2012 election between President Obama and Mitt Romney was called on Tuesday night, with the Associated Press declaring Obama the winner at 11:39 PM EST on November 6. At 12:49 AM EST on November 7, Romney called Obama to concede and delivered his concession speech at 12:55 AM. 


In the 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain, Obama surpassed the necessary 270 electoral votes in the 11 o’clock hour on Election Day, November 4. 

The past three presidential elections were called on election night or the early hours of the next morning. These results have never been official, and votes are always still counted in the days after Tuesday. States never report their final results on election night, which is not legally required. Americans are accustomed to knowing the winner on election night because news organizations declare winners based on partial counts. These calls happen when one candidate has secured enough of the vote to prevent a realistic chance of their opponent winning, when considering the number of outstanding ballots. 

 This election year has been different. States counted early and absentee ballots at different times. Some states announced same day vote first, while others began with early and absentee votes.

The main difference this year has been in the partial counts. There has been a clear Democratic preference in mail-in votes, and several key battleground states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, were not legally allowed to begin counting these ballots until Election Day. On election night, these states first reported their same-day votes, which nation-wide leaned toward Trump, but as mail-in ballots were counted these states began to shift blue. 

Each state has a certification deadline to release final results, ranging from two days after the election in Delaware to more than a month in California. The only difference we have seen in 2020 is the delay in declarations from news organizations on election night and the following days. Normally, AP, NBC, ABC, and other news outlets are quick to call races, but they have been significantly more cautious when projecting winners this election cycle due to the continued counting of absentee ballots.

Donald Trump’s closing argument of this election was, “the votes in a fair election should not be counted past election night.” Trump reiterated this belief early Wednesday morning in a speech from the White House, where he inappropriately declared victory and demanded that the states in which he was leading at the time should stop counting ballots. Essentially, he asked for counting to stop in the states where he led but continue the counting in any state where he was currently behind. Media outlets took his speech off the air and Twitter added a notification that his tweet declaring victory included misinformation. 

At 12:49 AM on November 4th, Trump tweeted, “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!” While Republicans and Democrats alike would have liked to know the final results of the election at 12:49 AM, there are still millions of votes to be counted and Trump’s declaration is harmful to the integrity of our democracy. 

Not only are Trump’s claims factually incorrect, as states never completely finish counting every ballot by midnight, but these claims also suggest a subversion of the electoral process that would disenfranchise millions of voters and threaten the foundation of American democracy. 

As ballots will continue to be counted legally in the days following November 3rd, the Trump and Biden campaigns have had drastically different responses to the continuation of basic democratic practices. 

Donald Trump and his campaign have called for a recount in Wisconsin and plan to take up lawsuits against other states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, that showed Trump leading early Tuesday night and inching towards Biden as ballots were counted. On the other side of this campaign, Biden and those in his campaign have urged voters to be “patient” while local officials “count every vote.” 

The intentions of the two candidates are clear. Biden continues to uphold the pillars of democracy by waiting for every vote to be counted, while conversely Trump declared early victory and has taken up lawsuits when potentially millions of ballots remain uncounted. 

For anxiety’s sake, everyone wants to know the results of the Presidential Election on election night, but for democracy’s sake, patience must be granted to local election officials who worked throughout the night, and will continue to do so in the days that follow, in defense of American democracy.

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