What to Expect When You’re Electing: 2022 Edition

The 2022 midterm elections are well underway. As the American people prepare to elect a new Congress, and a wide array of other officeholders at the state and local level, we want to review what to expect in the coming days and weeks, and to share some key information about how U.S. elections are structured and administered. We hope this piece will help clarify processes and help to manage expectations for these elections.

In the wake of the violence on January 6, 2021, and the false allegations of voter fraud that precipitated it and continue today, many of us remain concerned that elections may once again contribute to instability, mistrust, and even violence. We hope to share helpful information regarding our country’s election integrity so that we can better understand what the processes are and what structures are in place already. At the same time, we remain concerned about voter suppression, voter intimidation, misinformation, and other deliberate efforts to marginalize voters. Now let’s go step-by-step into the vote counting process.

What Happens When the Polls Close?

Levels of anticipation and anxiety for many will be high leading up to Tuesday, November 8, and as polls close and results begin to come in. As always, midterm elections determine which party or parties control the House and Senate, and as a result what political agendas may move forward in the 118th Congress. The evening of November 8th, many Americans will watch the vote count trickle in and some results announced. Some states will be “called” for Congressional candidates depending upon the demographics and the number of votes left to be counted in those states. Even so, it is important to note these “calls,” or “projections” as some media outlets will refer to them, are not the official result. Votes will continue to be counted even in states that have been called by media organizations.

Historically, most votes have been cast in person, either early or on Election Day itself. All the votes are then counted, and results are announced on the evening of Election Day. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, recent elections have not been like most elections. Fears of COVID prompted massive surges in the number of voters requesting mail-in ballots, and many states allowed for expanded early and no excuse absentee ballots. While mail-in ballots in all 50 states and the District of Columbia count just the same as an in-person vote (contrary to the popular myth that states only count mail-in ballots if the result is close), postal ballots do require verification processes that differ from that of in-person ballots. This process usually involves a name and signature check that authenticates the voter’s identity.

Many states allow local election officials to begin the process of verifying mail-in ballots any number of days *before* Election Day, to ensure both that they are ready to be counted once the polls close and that voters can “cure” their ballots, or correct them, if any mistakes were made. States that allow election officials to verify mail-in ballots before Election Day, such as Florida, will likely report almost all their results within a few hours of polls closing on November 8.

However, 8 states do not allow election officials to begin this verification process until Election Day itself. Since mail-in voting will likely be popular again this year as it was in 2020, it is almost certain that we will not receive enough information on election night itself to make solid projections about the winners of all races in these 8 states. These 8 states will, however, announce the in-person votes they received during in-person early voting (if they allow early voting) and from those who voted in-person on Election Day itself. It is important to note this will not be a complete count. These 8 states will likely still have many uncounted mail-in ballots left to verify, tabulate, and announce.

There may well still be closely contested state and local races, however, that will take weeks to conclusively determine, as we saw in the 2020 presidential election year and 2018 midterms. Delayed results are not an indication of a problem. To the contrary, the delays demonstrated that election officials were doing their jobs and thoroughly counting and checking each ballot, following procedures in place precisely to ensure accurate tabulation of votes. This may be frustrating for all of us eagerly awaiting election results, moreover because we are used to more immediate responses through social media, but the slowness is likely a sign that the checks and balances in the system are working. For those who are voting whether in person or via the mail, you already know the physical nature of participating in our elections. So, too is the process for counting votes physical and sometimes time consuming.

The crucial swing state of Pennsylvania is among the 8 states that do not allow mail-in vote processing until Election Day itself. Pennsylvania has a closely contested Senate race that may determine which party controls the Senate, and Pennsylvania does not allow mail-in vote processing to begin until Election Day itself. Thus, the outcome of this race may not be determined until days after the election.

Even if the results are called Election Day, mail-in ballots will continue to be counted for all races, including key Congressional, state, and local races. To reiterate, we should expect to wait a few days or even weeks in some locations for accurate election results to come in.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled a handy guide to inform voters about when mail-in vote processing can begin in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

What if the Election is disputed?

While we are waiting for the official election results, we should also expect litigation, for instance, PA “naked ballot” issue or other litigation examples from last election. As with any election, it is difficult to predict exactly what litigation may occur, but it is commonplace for our election processes and not necessarily a sign of a weakened process. There may also be lawsuits about voter intimidation, as there have already been reports about individuals with weapons standing outside of drop boxes and polling places.

Voter Fraud Is Difficult to Pull Off

Contrary to popular belief, U.S. election officials have instituted safeguards that make it exceedingly difficult to successfully execute fraudulent voting and exceedingly easy to detect any funny business. Such protective measures are multi-layered, ensuring the security of our election. For example, some have cast suspicion of nefarious actors printing fake ballots to send into voting precincts. Mail-in ballots are printed on special stock not commercially available, making it nearly impossible for malevolent actors to print fake ballots. Each ballot has a unique barcode that election officials will scan to ensure voters cannot vote more than once. Americans can rest easy: stringent safeguards already exist to ensure fraudsters cannot successfully sway elections.

In the last decade and a half many states have implemented photo voter I.D. laws with the stated purpose of preventing voter impersonation fraud. While requiring voters to prove their identity when they show up to vote may have some merit, the problem of in-person voter fraud really doesn’t exist. This type of voter fraud is exceedingly rare because it is, frankly, a clunky, inefficient way to attempt to steal an election. 

In fact, VERY FEW people ever attempt to steal elections in this country by circumnavigating election security measures. Attempting to steal elections is so difficult, the rewards so minimal, and the cost of getting caught so high that hardly anyone bothers. This inventory produced by the Brennan Center for Justice catalogs a wide array of academic studies that attest to the fact that voter fraud hardly ever happens. Indeed, many instances of what we would consider “voter fraud” are examples of voter *mistakes* – someone unintentionally voting in the wrong precinct, or a former felon mistakenly thinking they are permitted to vote when they aren’t, things of that nature. 

In the post-election period, it will be essential for trusted civil society and faith organizations like The Episcopal Church to respond with wisdom and patience. As The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, we will find trusted sources to keep you updated on what is occurring; please check back regularly for updates. We pray that our Church can always be a voice for peace and justice. We pray for a free and fair election, and we pray that all Americans accept the result of the election. We should also call upon both major political parties to do the same and encourage politicians in both parties to speak out in support of our electoral process as well. For the 2022 midterms, The Episcopal Church has partnered with 866-OUR-VOTE to help raise awareness about their voter protection information and hotline. Please let people in your community know about their resources to help people respond if they are confronted with difficulties or lack of clarity casting their vote.