Why Virginia’s election night might be more like an election week

Why Virginia’s election night might be more like an election week
A poll worker in Richmond holds an "I Voted" sticker. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Anyone expecting to tune in for quick results on election night should probably start thinking about it as election week, according to Virginia officials who are trying to reshape public expectations in what’s expected to be a highly unusual presidential year.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be blowout races that might be called after the polls close on Nov. 3. 

President Donald Trump lost the state by more than 5 points in 2016, and few are expecting Virginia — where Republicans haven’t won a statewide race in more than a decade — to be a major presidential battleground.

But because it could take most of the week, if not longer, to finish processing votes, competitive congressional races could remain undecided for days.

“If it’s a close race you probably won’t have results until at least Friday,” Elections Commissioner Chris Piper said in an interview.

The key difference this year is the shift to voting by mail in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That change will make ballots coming in via mail, including many that will arrive after Election Day, more important to the outcome. All ballots postmarked before the 7 p.m. poll closing time will be counted, as long as they arrive before noon on the Friday after Election Day. 

“Ballots will be coming in all the way through Friday,” Piper said. “And then it’s going to take time to count those.”

Under a recently adopted state rule, late-arriving ballots missing postmarks will also be counted. In a tight race, legal disputes could arise over which ballots should or shouldn’t count, potentially adding more delays.

Absentee ballots will start going out in the mail on Sept. 18, and officials are urging voters to send them back early.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.