When polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday, New Jerseyans will know more than they would on the typical election night. But calling winners in some close contests in the state — and the presidency at the national level — will likely be days away.
As of late Friday morning, about 3.17 million people in New Jersey had already voted. That represents about 80% of the total votes cast in 2016 and more than half of all ballots sent to voters. Because election officials were able to start processing ballots beginning Oct. 24, several county officials say they have already scanned most of the ballots received so far.
By the time the polls close, many counties may have already counted close to 90% of the ballots cast, and they will be able to report those results all at once. Having already scanned most of the ballots, once 8 p.m. rolls around, officials will be able to get a summary of all the pre-Election Day ballots they were able to scan right away.
Many county officials said they plan to post this information soon after 8 p.m. After that, some counties plan to provide another update on Tuesday night, while others will do so over the next several days. They will not begin counting the provisional ballots cast on Election Day until Nov. 10, after all mail-in ballots have been logged in and tallied.
Exactly how many people will vote Tuesday using provisional ballots is an open question, as is how those votes will impact what are expected to be close races.
‘It’s definitely going to look different’
“It’s definitely going to look different,” said Stephanie Salvatore, superintendent of elections in Gloucester County, of election night reporting. “In other years, it’s fun, because if you’re looking at a countywide race, the numbers are up and down and up and down as this town comes in and that town comes in. There’s no districts, no coming in, it’s going to be one big shot: Here’s the results, everybody’s going to see all the results.”
Most of the state’s federal races — including who New Jersey chooses for president — are not expected to be close, so the election night results should be enough to predict the winners in most places. But the results could be too close to call in some local and county races and in three House districts: South Jersey’s 2nd Congressional District race pitting Republican Rep. Jeff Van Drew against Amy Kennedy; the 3rd District race in parts of Burlington and Ocean counties in which Republican David Richter is challenging Rep. Andy Kim; and the sprawling 7th District stretching from Hunterdon to Union counties, where Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski is trying to fend off Republican Tom Kean.
Early returned ballots had shown Democrats sending back their votes in greater proportion than Republicans. But as of Oct. 28, the parties’ return rates were almost equal — 56.2% by Democrats and 54.8% by Republicans, according to the US Elections Project. A roughly equivalent return of ballots between the parties could give the campaigns a greater ability to be able to call tight races. The wild card may be unaffiliated voters, though. Their return rate was only 37.4% but they are also less likely to vote than partisans.
“If you believe the rating changes this week for Andy Kim and Tom Malinowski, they could conceivably garner enough votes to be outside the window of provisional ballots,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. One national election analyst moved Kim’s seat to likely Democratic and another took it out of play altogether while at the same time changing Malinowski’s seat to likely Democratic.
“That would leave us waiting on the Van Drew-Kennedy race,” Rasmussen added. Most of the raters call that race a toss-up, though Inside Elections now lists it as “tilt Democratic.”
Not knowing the winner of a high-profile race on election night is unusual, but not unheard of, in New Jersey. Two years ago, Kim declared victory the day after the election but his opponent, incumbent Republican Tom MacArthur, did not concede until eight days after the election. That came after the counting of mail-in and provisional ballots was completed and showed Kim with 4,000 votes more than MacArthur.
Democrat Joe Biden is expected to win New Jersey easily but it’s unclear when the nation will know who will be the next president, given the way in which some of the battleground states — and even counties within those states — are counting ballots. Rasmussen pointed to what is happening in neighboring Pennsylvania, a swing state that the candidates are both hoping to win, as indicative of the coming uncertainty.
“On the one hand, President Trump is insisting the counting needs to be done by Tuesday night, while on the other hand his party in the state Legislature has opposed every effort to pre-canvass what are likely to be 2.5 million early ballots before 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning,” Rasmussen said. “Then, to add insult to injury, about seven counties in Pennsylvania have decided not to begin counting the early votes until Wednesday — a full day after they’re allowed by law … I take the Pennsylvania attorney general at his word when he says we’ll start to get an idea by Wednesday morning, but it is also realistic to expect that even with counting around the clock — for example, Philadelphia will be able to count 12,000 ballots an hour — it may take until Friday morning to have a full count in everyone’s expected tipping point state for the White House. What a mess, and a preventable one at that.”
Regardless of early returns and campaigns’ declarations of victory in New Jersey, the state’s results will not be considered final until Nov. 20.