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Delayed results are not evidence of fraud

It’s all over but the counting — but that may take a while.

President Donald Trump has been tweeting up a storm about election results, repeatedly declaring that the final outcome should be known tonight. “The Election should end on November 3rd., not weeks later!” he tweeted on Friday.

There’s just one problem with the idea that every vote should be counted by midnight: It’s not possible in a modern election. No state ever reports final results on election night, nor are they required to do so. Each state has a deadline for certifying the results of an election. In Oregon, that date is Dec. 3 this year.

Voters may remember the drawn-out battle between State Sen. Alan Bates and Dave Dotterrer in 2010. The final, certified tally had Bates winning by 275 votes. After a hand recount of 50,000 ballots, Bates was declared the winner by 282 votes — six weeks after the election.

State certification deadlines range from three days in Delaware to more than a month in California. And this year, with millions more voters casting ballots by mail because of the pandemic, election officials have their work cut out for them.

Americans are accustomed to knowing who won on election night because news organizations project winners based on incomplete counts. When a candidate is far enough ahead that the number of uncounted ballots is not enough to realistically sway the outcome, those projections can be accurate. But there are always races that are too close to call.

Oregon’s results are likely to be known tonight, or by the wee hours of tomorrow morning, because state law requires all ballots to reach county elections departments by 8 p.m. Postmarks do not count. Drop boxes are open to receive ballots until 8 p.m.

In previous elections, voter procrastination caused slow counting, because so many voters waited until the last minute to drop off ballots. Counting mail-in ballots is not a simple process. First, the signature on the outside of the envelope is compared to the signature on file to make sure it matches. Then the ballots are sorted by precinct, the envelopes are opened and the ballots prepared for the counting machines.

This year, many more voters than usual returned ballots early. That will help, because workers can do the preliminary processing starting a week before the election. The only thing that can’t be done in advance is the actual counting, which cannot start before 8 p.m.

Oregon is among a handful of states that conducts all its elections exclusively by mail, and we’re pretty good at it, because we’ve been doing it for 20 years. Other states that ramped up vote-by-mail this year may be in for a long haul — especially those that allow ballots postmarked by election day to be counted even if they arrive later. Every vote that is legally cast ought to be counted, even if that doesn’t happen today.

A delayed result may be frustrating for the candidates and for the public, but it doesn’t mean the final tally is suspect in any way.

So sit back, and try to be patient.