Election night 2020 was an election night like no other — and not just because the “night” ended up lasting four days. This election was also unique because of how Americans voted — a record number voted early, either in person or by mail. Because many states report absentee and Election Day ballots at different times, and absentee voters are disproportionately likely to be Democrats while Election Day voters are disproportionately likely to be Republicans, that made it tricky to follow the vote in real time. The candidate who led a given state on Tuesday night wasn’t always the one who eventually won it, leading many real-time observers to conclude the presidential race was closer than it actually was.
In some states like North Carolina and Ohio, that meant the initial vote totals included a disproportionate number of Biden votes relative to the final results; in others, like Michigan and Virginia, the initial totals included a disproportionate number of Trump votes. And in still others, Trump began to look stronger as more votes were counted on election night, but it became clear that Biden received more votes as the last few mail-in ballots were counted in the ensuing days.
You can see this in the map below, which shows you where the reported vote totals stood for each candidate 90 minutes, 12 hours and 72 hours after the last polls were scheduled to close in each state.1
Let’s take a closer look at the states where Trump gained ground as more votes were counted — a phenomenon sometimes referred to as a “red shift.” For example, 90 minutes after polls closed in Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio, Biden looked competitive in these three states — he even led in North Carolina and Ohio. But that changed as officials reported more results, and Trump wound up carrying all three states. It wasn’t just battleground states where this happened either. Deeply Republican states like Kentucky experienced this same “red shift” in their vote margins because of the order in which votes happened to be reported — it just didn’t affect who won them because they were already so Republican-leaning.
In other states, the margins moved in the opposite direction — the appearance of an early lead for Trump was eventually erased as more votes for Biden were counted. Sometimes this happened because the state was not allowed to process its absentee ballots before the week of the election and therefore couldn’t get a head start on its massive volume of absentee ballots (see Michigan). In other instances, the state only required absentee ballots to be postmarked, not received, by Election Day and was still accepting and counting ballots for a few days after (see Virginia). And sometimes, the state was just slow to finish counting all its absentee ballots (see Georgia). Either way, this “blue shift” in the vote count often took several days, making it hard to see who was really ahead if you weren’t familiar with the ins and outs of vote-counting.
And finally, in some states, it was more of a mix. The topline results zigged toward Republicans, then zagged toward Democrats as more votes were counted. For example, Pennsylvania started off election night looking good for Biden, but most of the votes counted over the next several hours were for Trump, and by Wednesday morning, Trump was ahead. However, the state spent the next several days counting absentee ballots, which were favorable for Biden.
As it turned out, there were enough absentee ballots outstanding for the Democrat to eventually take the lead at 9 a.m. on Friday morning. And Pennsylvania was, of course, the key state that eventually handed Biden the presidency.
In sum, the changes in who was leading in each state and when made for a roller coaster of an election week, and even produced accusations of fraud. But there was nothing fishy going on; no additional ballots were being cast after Election Day to influence the result. It was just the slow wheels of democracy turning. Indeed, given how the coronavirus pandemic threw our elections into turmoil with only eight months to prepare for the general election, it’s actually quite impressive that, the timing of the results notwithstanding, the election largely went off without a hitch.