Not the Usual Suspects: Some Big Swing States Might Put the Winner Over the Top on Election Night, But Not the States You’d Think

Election Day 2020, Nov. 3, is approaching, but the American people will be confronting an unusual, potentially anticlimactic Election Night as the polls close across the country.

The winner of the Presidential Election might not be determined that night.

But will the winner be decided by one of the targeted swing states in the Rust Belt?  You might be surprised to find that the answer is likely – no.

Here’s why.

Rust Belt Swing States

The three big swing states that Trump snatched from the Democrats in 2016 – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – won’t be counting their mail-in ballots until the beginning of Election Day or just before Election Day.

As a result, it seems clear that Michigan and Pennsylvania won’t finish counting for at least several days after the election, or even later. Gov. Evers of Wisconsin announced (See NYT article above) that they hope to complete the results there on Election Day or the day after. The United States Supreme Court just allowed a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision to stand that permits mail ballots to be received by Nov.6th. unless a preponderance of the evidence shows the ballot had not been postmarked by Nov. 3rd  , Since so many mail ballots are likely to be Democratic votes, the decision will enable those votes to be counted but solidifies the fact that it will take Pennsylvania time to finish counting its votes.

Notwithstanding the vote count complications in these 3 Rust Belt States, it is still possible that other critical swing states, like Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina, might complete, or nearly complete, their vote counts Election Night and the winners in those states could be called. It is also possible that Vice President Biden might be able to get to 270 Electoral College votes before Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin’s results are finally tallied. This understanding is informed by a look at how the Electoral College votes stack up in the Cook Political Report State-by-State Electoral College Ratings.

Here are the Cook Political Report Electoral College Ratings as of Oct. 19th:

The Cook State-by-State Electoral College Ratings show 212 Electoral College Votes in Solid Democrat or Likely Democrat states; there are only 125 Solid or Likely Electoral College votes for Republican States. Even if one added Texas, which is shown as Lean Republican, into the Republican column, it would still give the Republicans 163 Electoral College votes. The Democrats are thus likely to be far closer to 270 votes in the initial results than the Republicans.

In the Lean Democratic column are 3 states that Hillary Clinton won last time, by close margins, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Nevada, worth 20 Electoral College votes. Vice President Biden has leads in all three states that exceed Hilary’s 2016 margins, including a lead of ten or more points in New Hampshire.

The laws in each of these states differ as to when the mail ballots can be counted, but there are good chances that these states can finish their counts by Election Night or into the morning. Obviously, Vice President Biden is not guaranteed to win these states, but if he did, the Democrats would get to 232 Electoral College votes without counting Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, and Iowa, let alone the 3 Rust Belt States.


The use of mail ballots in Florida has been growing since Florida changed its laws after the months-long fight about the results of the Gore-Bush race in that state in 2000. Florida law permits mail ballots to begin being processed 22 days before the Election, and Governor DeSantis issued an Executive Order permitting the processing to begin 30 days before the election. The mail ballot deadline in Florida is Nov. 3rd. It is believed virtually all the ballots arriving by Nov.2nd at Election Boards will be counted, fed into the initial tallies, and reported after the polls close at 7pm Eastern Standard time on Election night. Governor DeSantis was quoted as saying, “Except for mail ballots that come in at the end, … mail ballots should be counted by the time the polls close.”  Even the Democratic counties in Florida with long histories of ineptitude claim they will be ready this time. The Election Commissioners of Broward and Palm Beach County say they will hire enough personnel to finish counting every ballot that has been received by the night of Nov. 2nd.

What will prevent the results being called in Florida, then, will be that the count will be too close without the results of Nov. 3rd itself, plus a small handful of ballots that by law can have defects cured by Nov. 5th. Vice President Biden’s polling leads are averaging 4 points in Florida now, but Florida is so huge that if 95% of the votes are counted on Election Night, that could still leave 500,000 votes left to be counted. If one candidate or the other has a lead far smaller than 500,000, it would not be feasible to declare the winner. But if Biden or Trump was ahead by several hundred thousand votes on Election Night, with only 500,000 votes remaining to be counted, it is plausible Florida’s winner could be called. If Biden were to win Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes, along with the 232 votes potentially available from “blue states,” it would bring Biden’s total to 261.


The New York Times article (See above) identifies Arizona as among the swing states where a substantial mail ballot election will go smoothly. Arizona law permits the mail ballots to start being processed 14 days before the election, and the mail ballot deadline is also Nov.3rd. The Arizona Secretary of State says that not all the ballots will be counted election night, but all the early ballots counted as of the end of Nov. 2nd will get reported after the polls close, about 10pm Eastern Standard Time. Vice President Biden has small but consistent leads in Arizona at about the same level as Florida, a little under four points. How close the count actually is will determine whether the winner can be called. In 2016, Donald Trump won by 3 ½ points, but in 2018 Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Krysten Sinema defeated Martha McSally 50-47, and the Green Party candidate got more than two percent. Arizona has 11 Electoral College votes. If Biden carried Arizona as well as Florida Election night, that would put him over 270 Electoral College votes even without Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin. No matter how you look at it, the Democrats winning both Florida and Arizona over the Republicans would be stunning victories. But Election night calls for both those states for Biden are plausible.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, local Election Boards have been reviewing mail-in ballots for validation since Sept.29th, and early voting began there Oct. 15th. Election officials say mail and early ballots in by Nov. 2nd will be released after the polls close. Mail ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3rd and can arrive up to Nov. 6th. According to the U.S. Elections Project, by Oct. 21, 2.1 million persons had voted in North Carolina, including 1.5 million in person. 22%, or 482,000, had not voted in 2016.

The State Republican Party has brought a lawsuit to allow partisan “citizen inspectors “ to attend county election board meetings and challenge the validation of the mail ballots, threatening to disrupt that process and delay the count of the ballots far past Election Day. A court decision is expected soon. If this litigation is unsuccessful, a very large percentage of North Carolina’s vote should be incorporated into the results Election Night. Biden once again has a small lead in the polls in North Carolina now, about 4 percentage points.


Ohio’s polls are showing a dead heat between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Ohio mail ballots can be pre-processed beginning Oct. 6th and must be postmarked by Nov. 2nd and received by Nov.13th. Ballots received before Election Day will be incorporated into the results posted Election Night, but some mail ballots will be trickling in after Election Day and whether Ohio’s winner can be called Election Night will, once again, depend on how close the results are. Ohio’s Secretary of State has said the results will not be finalized Election Night. 1.4 million Ohioans had returned their mail ballots by Oct. 21, out of 2.5 million requested. (See US Elections Project). 5.5 million voted in Ohio in 2016.

Don’t worry.

I am not irrational enough to believe it is possible to predict what will happen Election Night. There are, however, a lot of core blue states Biden is likely to win that bring him within striking distance of 270 Electoral College votes. If the Republicans do carry Florida, Ohio, and Arizona, they will rapidly get toward 270 themselves. But if Biden’s campaign continues to do well, there are plausible possibilities that such a large percentage of the vote in Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Minnesota, and Nevada gets counted with the Vice President leading in most of those states, it will be clear who will win the Election.

Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years and retired at the end of 2016. He chaired four committees, including the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions for six years, the Committee on Cities for five years, and the Committee on Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities for six years. There are 96 Brennan laws on the books of the State of New York and Jim won three national awards for his legislative work during his career.

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