Prepare to Be Disappointed on Election Night

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 26, 2018 · 10:42 AM EDT

After two years of campaigning in the latest most consequential election of our lifetimes, election night could be a huge letdown. The disappointment is not about which party prevails Nov. 6, but the reality that a combination of close races and West Coast contests could prevent enough races from being called to determine majorities in Congress until days later.

In the Senate, more than 10 races could finish within single digits, and a handful of those contests look like they’re neck and neck. The close margins could make it difficult for media outlets to project a winner on election night. Since Republicans have just a two-seat majority, every Senate race matters, so anything left uncalled could make it difficult to figure out who will control the chamber next year.

Even if all the races are called, the special election in Mississippi is likely to go to overtime. Neither former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy nor appointed-GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith is likely to receive a majority of the vote on Nov. 6 since candidates from both parties appear on the same ballot, which will include Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel. So the race will move to a Nov. 27 runoff.

Hyde-Smith is likely to win the election in the end (even if Espy finishes first in the initial balloting on election night), but if the Senate majority is hanging in the balance and hinging on a single seat, media outlets might be reluctant to declare a majority, especially after Democrats won a Senate special election in Alabama less than a year ago.

That means the Senate majority may not be known until after Thanksgiving, which could affect the urgency and importance of a lame-duck session if Democrats take control.

In the House, beyond the many races that could be too close to call on election night, the dozen competitive races on the West Coast could delay a majority call.

In California, home to at least nine competitive races, it could take days to count all ballots. After the June 5 primary, it took three weeks to determine which Democrat would take on GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in the 48th District.

Everyone votes by mail in Washington, which is hosting three competitive races. In both states, the ballots need to be postmarked by Nov. 6 to be counted, so election officials won’t even have all of the ballots on election night.

There are also other smaller potential wrinkles, including Maine’s 2nd District. It seems less likely that GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin or Democratic state Rep. Jared Golden will receive a majority in the initial voting with two other candidates on the ballot, so the race will move through the new ranked-choice system.

In June, it took eight days for Golden to be declared the winner of the Democratic primary after going through the new process. It’s possible the fight for the House hinges on the 2nd District outcome and is delayed by a few days.

Those people looking for finality on Nov. 6 could be sorely disappointed. But don’t say you weren’t warned.