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WASHINGTON — Welcome to 2020, which could be President Trump’s final full year in office. But those counting down to election day should probably stop now, because there’s a real chance we won’t know who won until well after Nov. 3.
A close election, possible recounts, and unusual voting laws in key states could very easily delay the results of the election and send the fight to the courts.
None of these events, taken alone, is super-likely to happen. But in what’s looking like a coin-flip election, any drama in the deciding states could force America to wait days, weeks, and potentially even months before we know who will occupy the White House for the next four years.
This, to put it mildly, would suck — both for campaign obsessives and for the nation as a whole.
Here are three plausible scenarios that could put the 2020 presidential election into overtime.
Arizona is looking like a serious swing state for the first time in decades, and could prove to be the tipping-point state in the 2020 election. That’s not good news for those hoping for a quick call on election night.
The state relies heavily on mail-in voting, and as a result is notoriously slow at counting its ballots. It often takes days, and sometimes weeks, to find out who’s won close elections in Arizona.
“Because of the way we count our ballots, no matter what I think it’s going to go past Election Day,” said Garrett Archer, an Arizona elections expert who currently works at ABC’s Phoenix affiliate. “We could go a week or longer.”
That happened just last election. Republican Martha McSally led Democrat Kyrsten Sinema on election night in a key Senate race. But Sinema pulled ahead two days later as more mail ballots were counted. It took six full days for the Associated Press to declare Sinema the victor.
And that race wasn’t even a particularly close: Sinema ended up winning by more than 50,000 votes and by more than a two-point margin. To get a sense of how normal this is in Arizona, this was the third time McSally had to wait past election day to know her fate: Both her 2012 and 2014 House elections went well past election day.
Arizona has been one of the fastest-changing states both demographically and politically over the last decade. Trump carried it by just 3.5 percentage points last time around, and his net job approval is weaker there than in other battlegrounds like Florida and North Carolina, according to state-level surveys from Morning Consult. Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the current Democratic front-runner, have been statistically tied in every recent Arizona poll.
If the Democratic nominee wins back Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states Trump narrowly carried where polling has looked bad for the GOP in recent months, but Trump wins every other state he carried last time around, Arizona could very well decide the next president.
A confluence of weird election rules could leave America waiting on northern Maine to know who wins the 2020 election.
First, Maine is one of just two states that assigns electoral college votes by congressional district, along with Nebraska. Two of those districts are actually competitive and could matter a great deal in a close election: Maine’s GOP-trending second district in the state’s more rural north, and Nebraska’s Democratic-trending Omaha-based second district. Both went for Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016.
If Trump loses Michigan and Pennsylvania, his two weakest states that he won in 2016, but holds onto every other state he won in 2016, he and his opponent will each have 268 electoral votes, two short of the 270 needed for election.
That’s when things could get extra complicated.
Nebraska counts its votes like most places do, and even in a close race shouldn’t take too long to know its results. Trump won the suburban Omaha district by just two points in 2016 after President Obama carried it in 2008, and it could very tip Democratic this year again.
But Maine has an unusual new law that allows “ranked choice” voting. Voters pick their favorite candidate but can vote for a second choice, and if their candidate isn’t at the top two their second choice then gets counted. This is arguably good for democracy as it prevents third-party spoiler candidates from tipping an election, but it’s bad for impatient election observers.
Last election was the first time the law was in place, and it resulted in exactly this scenario. Then-Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) led on election night, but Democrat Jared Golden pulled ahead after ranked-choice votes were tallied. It took a full week to find that out — and almost two months before Poliquin conceded after his lawsuits against the law fell short.
“If it comes down to Maine-two [the second district], assume ranked-choice voting will cause a delay in getting results. And there’s definitely a scenario where the two split states, Maine and Nebraska, could play a role in deciding 2020,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist who consults for Golden and has worked in both districts.
The Dreaded Recount
It’s happened before. It’ll happen again.
The 2020 election may simply be too close to call in a key state, leading to lawsuits, recounts and court fights that drag the election out for weeks.
That happened in 2000, when it took a Supreme Court decision to hand George W. Bush victory over Al Gore after Florida’s error-riddled election handed him the narrowest of victories.
Florida saw a bizarro replay of the 2000 recount in 2018. Both its gubernatorial and Senate races came down to the wire and triggered recounts, court fights, and ugly claims of voter fraud from Republicans — what the Miami Herald called 11 days of “organized chaos.” When all the smoke cleared, Republicans hung on to win both races.
It’s almost impossible to predict where a scenario like this might occur in 2020, but almost every election cycle has at least a handful of races go to recounts. State elections are notoriously underfunded, and the possibility of foreign meddling in the 2020 elections only increases the chances that a close election could see weeks or months of court fights.
Cover: President Donald Trump answers questions from reporters after making a video call to the troops stationed worldwide at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach Florida, on December 24, 2019. (Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)