Twice in my 18 years as a newspaper top editor, I have reached a point in the wee hours of the morning after election night when my only real choice for a lead headline before the presses had to start was:
Too close to call.
The first time came in 2000, as I worked at The Daily Record in Parsippany, New Jersey. The Nov. 7 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore came down to Florida and it’s hanging chads.
You may remember hanging chads — those tiny pieces of paper or cardboard created when holes are made in a type of computer card. In this case, the chads clinging to their points of origin were on election ballots and helped delay the results of the super-close 2000 election by more than a month.
The second time came here four years ago. The victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton had not yet become official as Election Day, Nov. 8, gave way to Wednesday morning, Nov. 9. Press start, already delayed, could wait no longer.
In 2000, we didn’t end up knowing for sure who won until Dec. 12. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, reversed the Florida Supreme Court’s request for a manual recount of that state’s presidential election ballots and effectively made Bush the winner of the state’s 25 electoral votes and thus, the presidency.
Four years ago, things were wrapped up much more quickly. At about 2:30 a.m. — less than an hour after we started the press — it was learned that Trump had secured Wisconsn’s 10 electoral votes, putting him over the top.
So, what can we expect this year after the polls close on Nov. 3?
The likelihood is we won’t know till after Nov. 3, because of the projected number of mail-in votes. I could probably design the Wednesday, Nov. 4 front page right now with a headline along the lines of:
Waiting for the mail or The envelopes, please.
Everyone involved in this year’s presidential election knows it’s unlikely we’ll know the winner on the night Nov. 3. Counting those mail-in ballots will slow the process. The final result could be delayed for days or longer.
According to the Washington Post, a September CNN poll found that “78 percent of Joe Biden’s supporters plan to vote early or by mail, while 68 percent of President Trump’s supporters say they want to vote in person on Election Day.”
It’s entirely possible, as the Post speculated, that the returns available by midnight will be heavy with in-person votes and might show that Trump is leading in enough states to win an electoral college majority. But the mail-in vote count could swing one or more key states, including this one.
The Post also reported that White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said last week that a “fair” election will be one “where we know who the president of the United States is on election night.”
I don’t believe that. We didn’t know in 2000 and the world kept spinning. (Well, everyone’s except Al Gore’s.)
I am expecting things to be a little chaotic the night of Nov. 3. I hope it is no worse than that.
We’ll need to be patient. The most important thing will be for every legally submitted vote to count — once.
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