It Could Take Days to Find Out the Midterm Election Results

(Bloomberg) -- Voters planning to stay up late on Election Night to find out which party wins control of the House and Senate should be prepared for a possible marathon wait.

The unusually large number of close contests, many in states known for slow ballot counting, means the first congressional election of Donald Trump’s presidency could go into overtime, perhaps for days after Nov. 6.

State election officials will be contending with potentially narrow margins, absentee and provisional ballots as well as the potential for contested results.

It Could Take Days to Find Out the Midterm Election Results

The first results, after polls close in the eastern U.S. beginning as early as 6 p.m. New York time, may give an early indication of whether Democrats managed to generate a so-called wave election that sweeps Republicans out of control in the House and, perhaps, the Senate.

But even a rout is no guarantee of a quick resolution. In 2006, the last Democratic wave election, it took two days to determine they had flipped control of the U.S. Senate because of close results in Virginia and Montana.

"In the normal course of any election, there are going to be ballots that take longer to count," said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida professor who tracks voting data. "If those are the states where there are particularly close elections, we may be sitting a few days before we know."

California Count

The prospects for ambiguity are higher this year, in part, because of the unusually large number of competitive House races in California, where voting by mail is more popular than in-person balloting. Golden State ballots can be postmarked on Election Day and aren’t due in county election offices until the Friday after the election.

The state, where about a quarter of the ballots cast in 2014 were tallied at least two days after the election, is central to Democratic efforts to try to secure the net gain of 23 seats the party needs to take the House. It has seven races rated as competitive -- either tossups or just leaning Democrat or Republican -- by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Two-Week Delay

In that midterm four years ago, it took California officials more than two weeks to confirm a re-election victory for Democratic Representative Jim Costa. On election night, he trailed Republican challenger Johnny Tacherra, who went to Washington for orientation during the drawn-out tabulation. But Costa ultimately pulled ahead in the full tally that included Democratic-leaning provisional and absentee ballots.

This year’s California primary in June is also instructive. It took 19 days to determine the second-place finisher in the 48th congressional district, in a contest where the first and second place winners -- no matter their political party -- advanced to the general election. The race, between incumbent Republican Dana Rohrabacher and Democrat Harley Rouda, is among the seven in the state that Cook rates as competitive.

With 435 House and 35 Senate seats on the nation’s ballots, other states could generate counting delays or polling place legal challenges as well.

Washington state, where Cook rates three House races as competitive, conducts all of its voting by mail. Ballots must be postmarked no later than Election Day, or returned to a ballot drop box by 11 p.m. Eastern Time.

Absentee Ballots

Iowa has two House races rated as competitive and makes wide use of absentee ballots. Those votes must be postmarked by the day before the election and received in a county auditor’s office no later than noon on the Monday following the election.

The tabulation of provisional ballots in close contests also could slow the congressional verdict. States are required under federal law to provide them to anyone with a problem at the polls, including voters who don’t have the required form of identification or those whose names are missing from polling place registration lists.

Election officials review provisional ballots and allow voters to clarify their eligibility after Election Day, and that can be a time-consuming process. Races are often called by the Associated Press and other news organizations even before provisional ballots are counted because the margins of most contests are definitive enough that those additional ballots won’t alter the outcome.

Provisional Ballots

If there are races that are extremely close that haven’t been called on Election Night, McDonald said his research suggests that provisional ballots tend to break strongly for Democrats. That’s because younger voters, who tend to move more often and lean Democratic, are some of the biggest users of provisional ballots.

Four states -- Arizona, California, New York and Ohio, all of which have competitive races -- accounted for three-quarters of the provisional ballots issued in the 2016 election, according to the federal Election Assistance Commission. California alone accounted for more than half nationwide.

Ohio, which has two close House races, uses provisional ballots when a person isn’t on a voter registration list, has had a recent address change, or doesn’t have the state-required identification. County officials verify the eligibility of these voters after the election and, when confirmed, count their ballots.

Run-Off Election

It Could Take Days to Find Out the Midterm Election Results

With so many Senate elections on a knife’s edge, there’s a small chance that control of the chamber won’t be determined until at least Nov. 27, the date of a likely runoff election in Mississippi. The first-round election on Nov. 6 includes three major-party candidates, two Republicans and one Democrat. All are running on a single ballot, and it’s unlikely any of them will win the majority needed to clinch victory without a runoff.

Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who was appointed in April to succeed Republican Thad Cochran and is backed by Trump, would be favored in Republican-leaning Mississippi over Democrat Mike Espy, who was President Bill Clinton’s first agriculture secretary and a congressman before that. Democrats would prefer a runoff between Espy and Republican state Senator Chris McDaniel, a conservative firebrand who almost toppled Cochran in a fractious 2014 GOP primary.

Neighboring Louisiana will also hold all-party, single-ballot House elections Nov. 6, though at least five of the six incumbents are likely to clinch vote majorities then. There’s one heavily Republican district where a GOP incumbent may be forced into a Dec. 8 runoff because he’s opposed by another Republican and four Democrats.

When tens of millions of Americans do anything, McDonald said, it’s only human nature that some things are going to go wrong. That includes the nation’s voting and tabulation systems.

"The election administrator’s prayer is that the election is decisive enough that we won’t have to worry about minutia," he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.