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We are now five days away from the opening of polls. I know many of you are interested in how the process works; moreover, it’s always fun to be “in the know” on what’s happening on Election Day. So in the spirit of “look smart to your friends and family,” here’s a short election viewer’s guide that I have developed in more than two decades of watching voting from an election geek’s point of view.

Don’t overreact in the morning. Elections are, at their root, an intensely human affair. With tens of millions of voters visiting tens of thousands of polling places and encountering hundreds of thousands of poll workers, it is inevitable—indeed, completely predictable—that things are going to go wrong. This is especially true in the morning; you can expect the morning news (or Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to be filled with reports of polling places opening late, problems starting voting machines, or other issues. Although some of these problems may turn out to be significant, they usually work themselves out and are just a memory by midday. It’s worth noting problems early in the day but in most cases, there’s no real need for concern.

Midday is when serious problems come into focus. By midday (local time), the easily resolvable morning issues should have fallen away and any serious issues will start to pop up. Any problems that have persisted by, say, noon or 1 p.m. local time are likely troublesome enough that they’re worth watching more closely. In particular, look for any locations where delays or problems (as opposed to large numbers of voters) have resulted in long lines; similarly, any polling place where mechanical or other problems result in a last-minute change to procedures—like the need for backup or even photocopied ballots—are especially important. By late afternoon of an Election Day, we should know if there are areas in which these problems are so bad that a court is asked to extend polling hours—those will be the “hot spots” for the evening.

In the evening, look for polling places open long past their scheduled closing time. Given the time-limited nature of Election Day, the close of polls is an incredibly important moment that separates voters from non-voters (even if they were would-be or wanna-be voters). If problems have indeed occurred, the focus will almost certainly be on those jurisdictions where either there are still hours’ worth of voters in line at the scheduled closing time or where a court has ordered extended poll hours. Don’t forget that any voters who vote as a result of court-ordered polling hours are required to cast provisional ballots under federal law; such ballots could become significant in the case of post-election litigation (recount, challenge, etc.) regarding the outcome.

The election isn’t over on election night. Regardless what you might think (or hear), Election Day is not the finish line. Between vote-by-mail ballots (which in some states can arrive days afterwards and still be counted) and provisional ballots (which must be validated before they can be counted, if at all), the numbers you see on Tuesday evening will be preliminary and could change in close races. You’ll notice that fewer candidates are “conceding” unless they are decisively beaten; instead, many will thank voters and say they are waiting for the “process to play out.” As with everything else in life, patience is a virtue.

And finally, the most important piece of advice for those of you who enjoy your elections with a heaping helping of drama …

Be prepared to be underwhelmed. Ever since the 2000 presidential election, we as a nation have held our breath waiting for a reoccurrence. Quite simply, it hasn’t happened; in the 18[!] years since election night 2000, I have had countless phone and email conversations with journalists looking for problems on Election Day—and nearly all of them have ended up with the journalist going away disappointed. Sure, you get the occasional razor-thin race that generates excitement like Washington State’s 2004 gubernatorial race or the 2008 Minnesota Senate contest, but by and large, people looking for another “meltdown” of the election system are still looking. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re still looking when all is said and done on Election Day 2018.

About the author

Doug Chapin

Doug Chapin

Doug Chapin serves as Director of Election Research for Fors Marsh Group. In his role, Doug is responsible for leading the research, analysis, and delivery of FMG’s election research programs and our fantastic staff of experts in this field. Doug joined FMG from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, where he served as the founder and first director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration. This master- and undergraduate-level certificate program is aimed at students as well as practitioners and works to identify, recruit, and train the next generation of election administrators nationwide.

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