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After The Polls Close, It Will Take Time To Get The Final Results

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We know that all the votes in this presidential election and other contests will not be counted by the end of tonight. That is always the case in an election. However, that doesn't mean that we won't be able to report on who won various contests and possibly even the presidency. So let's talk through how all of this works, and we're going to address how we at NPR are reporting on results tonight. Our senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is with us. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. So President Trump has been putting out this message. He believes that Americans need to know who won the election tonight, on November 3, and that ballots, he claims, shouldn't be counted for a long time. But isn't that how elections work? I mean, you just - they keep going until you count the votes.

MONTANARO: Usually, yes (laughter). You know, we've never had the full vote counted on election night. That never happens. A lot of states do allow absentee or mail-in ballots postmarked by today but arrive a few days later to count. You know, that's not new. It's totally normal. Think about something you put in the mail. How long does it take to get to a friend - right? - and especially this year when things appear to be taking a little longer than usual in the mail?

You know, if an election is close, there are rules for campaigns to check and contest ballots. And that's why states actually have days and, most times, weeks until they have to certify results. You know, that's not a sign of cheating; that's how it works. There were plenty of races, for example, in 2018 that showed one candidate or another ahead in California, for example, but as more mail-in ballots were counted, the races slowly slipped away and changed hands. That - again, that's totally normal. Nothing nefarious about that.

And this year could be more complicated, obviously, because of the pandemic and so many more people deciding that they want to vote by mail. We might actually get to know results pretty quickly, though, tonight in places like Florida, North Carolina and Arizona, which were able to process votes before today. Places like Pennsylvania and Nevada, though, I think we need to be prepared for the fact that they take longer to count.

MARTIN: OK. So we could see counting going on for days, even weeks, perhaps, but there's also a scenario in which we do know. I mean, and this has been historically the case, that a winner is projected or even confirmed on election night and all the votes haven't been counted, right? So explain that.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, we don't always, though, you know? I mean, AP didn't call a win for Trump until 2:29 a.m. on Wednesday after Election Day. It really depends on how close the race is, obviously. You know, when a candidate has a clear lead, it's easy for the decision desks of the broadcast networks and the AP to make a call, you know, when a candidate doesn't have a path to be able to win, even though all the votes haven't been counted. That's an easy way for them to be able to make those calls and projections.

You know, a lot of people surprised and say, how can you make a call at zero percent in? Well, they look at historical trends in a state - a state like Oklahoma, which goes very Republican, or a state like Vermont, which tends to go very Democratic - they can sort of see based on key precinct data how to make that call. You know, we don't make calls ourselves at NPR, which we should note. We rely on The Associated Press completely. They've fanned out to collect the vote across the country. They have other data that they're looking at as far as turnout goes. You know, and they're looking at surveys of voters.

MARTIN: Surveys of voters - are you talking about exit polls?

MONTANARO: The AP actually is not using exit polls anymore. They switched to something called VoteCast. This is actually a massive preelection poll that they start on Monday and go through Election Day, and they survey about 140,000 people nationwide. And compared to a normal, scientifically rigorous poll, nationally, it's about a thousand people that's seen as a good poll. So this is 140 times that, and they're polling all across the country, including the key swing states. So we're going to be using that.

MARTIN: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.