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Election week? Maybe not: Arizona, Florida and others could give early indication of who is winning

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WASHINGTON – Many election experts have warned it might take days or even weeks after Election Day for a final outcome in the presidential race because of the unprecedented deluge of mail ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But the country could get major clues on election night even as counting continues in some key states.

Several battleground states – some accustomed to high-volume mail-voting and others that start processing absentee ballots weeks before Nov. 3 – are expected to have substantial shares of their votes counted and reported on election night and into the next morning.  

Recent polling shows Democratic nominee Joe Biden has built a double-digit lead nationally since the first presidential debate and has widened his leads in most swing states. Election night numbers in some states could indicate whether the former vice president is on track for a decisive win over President Donald Trump – and surpassing the needed 270 electoral votes – or whether the outcome remains in doubt.

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Those states include Florida, which begins processing mail ballots 22 days before the election; Arizona, which starts that process two weeks before the election; North Carolina, which started processing ballots on Sept. 29; and Texas. 

Although Texas is not among states that expanded mail-voting to all voters during the pandemic, its largest counties can begin processing absentee ballots 12 days before the election. Georgia, which did make mail-voting available to all voters, allows the processing of ballots to begin two weeks in advance. Ohio started processing mail ballots last week. In Iowa, counties can start opening the outer envelopes on absentee ballots the Saturday before Election Day.

Each is in contrast to three critical Rust Belt states – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – where election officials must wait until Election Day, or in Michigan's case, 10 hours before the election, before they can open mail ballots and begin counting. These three states are expected to be counting millions of absentee ballots days after polls close.

"I think the conventional wisdom of this thing taking weeks or many, many days is probably wrong," said Thomas Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

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A 'large signal' on election night?

Processing absentee ballots involves opening the envelopes containing the ballots, matching signatures to registration rolls and verifying barcodes on the envelopes. Each is a necessary step before ballots are counted.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, 4 out of 5 Arizonans voted by mail. The state won't have results instantly, according to Volgy, a former Democratic mayor of Tucson, but the winner of Arizona could be known by the next morning. Recent polls in Arizona, which hasn't voted Democrat in a presidential election since 1996, have Biden ahead 2 to 8 percentage points.

"We'll have clues very, very clearly," Volgy said. "If a state like Arizona reports out with Biden having won, as the polls look like right now, or Florida, it's going to give a really large signal about what's happening with the rest of the ballots in the Midwestern states as well that are counting late."

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Several of the early-indicator states are in the Sun Belt, lean conservative historically and went for Trump in 2016. But Biden is either ahead or competitive in each, according to recent polls, as the president's support among seniors, college-educated suburban voters and women erodes.

Some of the states that begin processing early also feature competitive U.S. Senate races – Sen. Martha McSally versus Democrat Mark Kelly in Arizona and Sen. Thom Tillis against Democrat Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, for example – that could decide whether Democrats take control of the Senate.

None of these states will have complete results on election night, but they could have enough counted and publicized to show whether Biden or Trump is likely to prevail or if the race is going to remain tight as outstanding absentee ballots are counted.

"We're going to know about Florida and Arizona by the very latest probably the next morning," Volgy said. "There is no path to victory for the Trump campaign if he loses both Florida and Arizona."

Conversely, Biden would still have life if Trump were to carry Florida and Arizona. The former vice president would need to carry every state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and flip Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, each won by Trump four years ago. That's why a Trump victory in Florida and Arizona would not necessarily mean a reelection victory but rather shift the focus on the counting efforts in the Midwest states.

Florida, Florida, Florida 

Even if Biden and Trump are neck-and-neck in Florida or Arizona on election night, that could mean Biden is in good shape in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania – states where Biden has polled better and consistently led throughout the race.

Close contests in Georgia or North Carolina could also spell trouble for Trump nationally. Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said the Tar Heel State expects "98% to 99%" of ballots to be reported in the hours after polls close. Recent polls in North Carolina range from a tied race to Biden ahead by 4 percentage points. 

"We should be able to see what's going to happen," said Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, looking ahead to election night.

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In Florida, absentee ballots must be in election offices on Election Day. The first results posted in Florida will include early in-person and mail ballots. Historically, 30% of Floridians voted by mail before the pandemic. This year, already 1.7 million people have voted early by mail in Florida, with Democrats holding a big advantage  – 850,000 Democrats have returned mail ballots, compared with 480,000 Republicans. 

Polling suggests Biden voters are twice as likely to vote by mail than Trump supporters amid the president's monthslong assault on mail-voting, which he has argued without evidence is rife with fraud. Most recent polls in Florida show Biden ahead

If Biden is ahead on election night in Florida, even by just 1 percentage point, then the only ballots left to count will be military, overseas and provisional ballots likely to benefit Biden, McDonald said. 

"The most likely scenario is that we know who wins Florida," he said, adding that if Biden wins, it "greatly restricts Trump's pathway to an Electoral College victory. If Biden wins North Carolina and Texas on top of that, or Arizona, these pathways become virtually nonexistent for Trump. So there's a good chance on election night we will know who the president is."

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'We will know in short order which world we live in'

Election night numbers in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are likely to favor Trump because of his anticipated advantage with in-person voting on Election Day. Democrats have raised the alarm about a "red mirage" on election night showing Trump ahead in these states, only to replaced by a "blue shift" as mail ballots, which could skew 2 to 1 for Biden, are counted.

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But the opposite could be true in Florida, a state that has voted for the presidential winner in every election since 1996.

"If anything, we're going to see the 'red shift' in Florida," McDonald said, alluding to the mail-in ballot tallies likely to be posted first. "Biden should probably jump out to a huge lead in Florida, and then as the Election Day results come in from the precincts, that's where we're going to see Trump make up ground on Biden."

Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford University and a co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Projects, said it's true a winner might not "definitively' be known on election night. But he said it's more likely that election night will produce enough results from fully counted states and fully counted counties to "make inferences" on the likely winner. 

He said that even though Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin might not be finished counting all absentee ballots, some fast-counting counties in those states should be finished shortly after the election. Election observers should be able to compare Trump's tallies in those counties to his performances in 2016 to know where things stand.

"Since 2016 was such a narrow victory, if he's doing worse than in 2016, then that gives you a sense of whether he's going to be able to win this year," Persily said. 

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Trump has not committed to a peaceful transfer of power or agreed to refrain from prematurely declaring victory. He has also hinted at post-election litigation, even up the Supreme Court, leading many to predict the election will be decided in court.

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"It make sense to preach caution but not to predict chaos," Persily said. "We need to prepare the American people for a different kind of election night because it's possible if we have a repeat of 2016, or let alone 2000, we may be in for the long haul."

But he added: "We will know in short order which world we live in – one where there is a clear winner or one where we will be fighting over absentee ballots for many days."

More: Experts held 'war games' on the Trump vs. Biden election. Their finding? Brace for a mess

Campaigns targeting Georgia, Texas

In recent weeks, the Trump campaign – facing a fundraising disadvantage against Biden – pulled TV ads slated to run in Michigan and Wisconsin and boosted their ad spending in Florida, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, a swing state that Clinton won in 2016, according to BuzzFeed News.

In a sign of a close race in Georgia, which polls show in a virtual tie, the president has scheduled a rally in the state later this week, days after his daughter Ivanka Trump will campaign in the state. 

Texas, second to only California in electoral college votes with 38, remains perhaps the toughest of the Sun Belt states for Biden to win. But it's a state that, thanks to changing demographics and several tight congressional races, Democrats think they can win for the first time since the 1976 presidential election.

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In a push to put both Georgia and Texas in play, Biden's wife, Jill Biden, campaigned in Georgia on Monday and plans to travels to El Paso, Dallas, and Houston on Tuesday. The Biden campaign has spent nearly $4 million on TV ads in Georgia and $6 million in Texas, according to Advertising Analytics, a political advertising tracking firm.

Biden carrying Texas "is something that's possible but not probable," said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas-Austin.

Texas' biggest cities, such as Houston, have a history of long lines lasting late into the night of Election Day and even early morning. But Texas, which begins in-person early voting Tuesday, shouldn't have the massive amount of outstanding absentee ballots like other states because its leaders opted not to expand mail-voting amid the pandemic.

"I think we'll have a pretty good indication of what's going on, but there's a lot of big ifs there," Henson said. 

Trump won Texas by 9 percentage points in 2016, but polling shows him maintaining a slimmer lead of 2 to 7 percentage points this year. If Texas is close on election night, it could be a sign of a Biden landslide. 

"If Wednesday morning rolls around and Texas looks too close to call, I think you have to assume that there has been a pretty successful wave for Biden nationwide," Henson said. "And so at that point, who knows? It may not matter."

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.