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The 2020 election was always going to be messy, and in many ways what's happening was expected

  • The 2020 election was always expected to be especially messy because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive number of mail-in ballots.
  • Election officials in key battleground states said for weeks that it was unlikely that they would have counted enough votes to declare a winner by November 3.
  • And despite President Donald Trump's claims to the contrary, it's a normal part of the electoral process for ballots to continue to be counted after Election Day.
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For months, election experts and journalists told Americans that it was unlikely there would be a clear winner on election night. But almost as soon as polls began to close on Tuesday, it became evident that those words of caution had not taken hold with many voters.

The anxiety across the nation was palpable on election night, as people on social media jumped from one conclusion to another about the result. It did not help matters that President Donald Trump continued to push disinformation about the process, falsely claiming victory as votes were still being counted and baselessly asserting that the election was being stolen.

Final election results are never available on election night. Even when news outlets were able to use available results to declare a winner on Election Day in past elections, full results were still not in. But the convoluted array of circumstances surrounding the 2020 election essentially ensured that a winner would not be projected on election night, and voters should've braced for this.

An unprecedented number of Americans — roughly 65 million — voted by mail in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It takes longer to process and count mail-in ballots than in-person ballots, and laws about which ballots are counted and reported first vary from state to state.

The huge number of mail-in ballots also led election experts to expect an increase in provisional ballots, which are provided to voters when their registration cannot be immediately verified at the polls.

Provisional ballots — which, like mail-in ballots, are time-consuming to process and count — are also given to voters who requested an absentee ballot but decided to go vote in person.

Twenty-two states and Washington, DC, count all ballots postmarked by Election Day. And most states allow absentee ballots, which include those from voters overseas and in the military, to arrive after Election Day and be counted.

Before Tuesday, election officials in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania repeatedly said results were likely to be delayed, possibly by days. That scenario has played out, with results still up in the air in all three battleground states as of noon on Wednesday. The three states were crucial to Trump's 2016 victory, providing him 46 electoral votes.

The 2020 election is also hinging on these states, as neither Trump nor former Vice President Joe Biden has crossed 270 electoral votes, the threshold necessary for victory.

In short, as hard as it is, the best option for voters is to be patient as election officials continue to count votes. And regardless of what Trump says, counting ballots is not equivalent to stealing an election.

Democracy is messy. Everything that's happening was expected and is a normal part of the process. Legal challenges expected from the Trump campaign could further complicate what happens next, so voters should buckle up.

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