Delays in election results are common. Over the last several presidential election cycles Americans have become accustomed to relatively quick announcements of a winner. In 2008 and 2012, media outlets announced Barrack Obama won the presidency before midnight. Even in 2016, where the razor thin margins in some states, including Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, ended up causing some delay, Americans woke up the morning after election day with the announcement that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States. That’s what makes the delay in the official results of the 2020 election so frustrating for many of us. However, we must all practice patience and have faith in the system to work properly. We must also keep in mind that waiting two, three, or even four days for election results is not really that aberrant.
Historically, Americans waited for election results for days, weeks, and even months. Here in Florida, most people probably remember the 2000 election that led to the infamous Florida recounts. In that election, media outlets originally announced Al Gore won the state, but later in the evening called the state for George W. Bush. The morning following election day, Gore called Bush and conceded the election. Yet, after realizing the margins were terribly small in Florida, Gore withdrew his concession and the recount began. After a series of court battles, discussions about “chads”, and nearly five weeks of delay, George W. Bush was finally declared the winner of the 2000 presidential election.
Perhaps the most delayed announcement came following the heated and controversial election of 1876. This election, famous for ending Reconstruction after the Civil War, also holds the record for the longest delay between election day and the announcement: four months! Both Republicans and Democrats claimed victory in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Although the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, led the popular vote by 260,000, he failed to garner enough electoral votes to secure victory over Rutherford B. Hayes. The fate of the election in the three disputed states would determine the winner.
Instead of going through the courts, as in 2000, the fate of the election fell to Congress. In a compromise, Congress established a bipartisan electoral commission that consisted of seven Democrats and eight Republicans. Over the course of four months, between election day in November and the inauguration day in March, the commission deliberated and, three days prior to inauguration, announced that Hayes was the winner of the disputed states and the presidential election.
Delays in election results are nothing unique to 2020. Seemingly instantaneous results are largely media driven and waiting several days for county election officials to officially certify results is the norm. In Florida, county supervisors of elections have until Nov. 17 to certify results, while states like New Jersey and Missouri have until Dec. 8. While 2020 has been unprecedented in myriad ways, the slight delay in election results should not cause alarm at this point. Americans have waited a few days, weeks, and even months for election results in the past. This is all part of the process, especially in close elections.
Brandon T. Jett, Professor of History, Florida SouthWestern State College.