MILWAUKEE (SPECTRUM NEWS) — Tuesday's election marks yet another historic event in a year that’s been chock-full of them. And it probably won’t be over when the clock strikes midnight.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, election officials in Wisconsin, like others across the country, are dealing with projected delays from an unprecedented wave of absentee ballots. Here’s what that will mean for the state, which could prove to be key to the entire presidential race.


When will we know the final results in Wisconsin?

Probably not on election night, officials say. 

Clerks from Dane, Milwaukee, and Waukesha counties have already predicted that ballots won’t be fully counted until at least Wednesday morning. The expected delays are mainly a result of record absentee ballots, which take longer for clerks to process compared to in-person votes.

“Due to the pandemic and the high number of absentee ballots, it will likely be (Wednesday) before all the unofficial results are in,” Meagan Wolfe, Wisconsin’s chief election official, said in a news release.  “It doesn’t mean something went wrong — it means election officials are doing their jobs and making sure every legitimate ballot gets counted.”

Though some states have already started counting their absentee ballots, Wisconsin’s laws specify that poll workers can’t start tallying them until Election Day kicks off. So, just as in-person voters start casting their ballots at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, workers will also start counting up the ballots they’ve already received through the mail, drop boxes, or early in-person sites.

Wisconsin will only be counting absentee ballots received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, when the polls close, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an effort to extend the deadline. Still, nearly 2 million Wisconsinites had already cast their absentee ballots as of Monday, according to the Wisconsin Elections Commission. 

In Milwaukee County — which is expected to receive about a quarter of the absentee ballots for the whole state — election officials predict they’ll need 18 to 23 hours to process absentee votes. That would mean Milwaukee’s results could come in between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., though even this isn’t a guaranteed time range.

Until we get the numbers from Milwaukee, the most populous county in Wisconsin, it’ll be impossible to call the results for the whole state.

Outagamie and Calumet counties are expecting their own processing delays after a misprint affected as many as 13,500 absentee ballots. Poll workers there will have to copy voters’ choices onto duplicate ballots, because the misprint prevents the machines from effectively reading the ballots.


Let’s back up. How does Wisconsin count absentee ballots?

The process varies a little bit between clerk’s offices, but the essential steps are the same: Verifying that the ballot is completed correctly, recording the ballot in a poll book, opening the envelope, and feeding it into a tabulator — a processing machine that keeps track of results.

In some municipalities, ballots are securely transported to the absentee voters’ polling places and counted there. Poll workers essentially stand in for the voter as they walk through the process of “casting” the absentee ballot. 

In others, ballots are tallied at central count facilities that include absentee votes from multiple polling locations. The city of Milwaukee, for example, will use a central count facility with 13 high-speed machines, where workers can count 1,000 to 2,000 ballots per hour. There are a total of 39 municipalities in Wisconsin that will be using central count locations on Tuesday.

Either way, poll workers legally can’t stop until every absentee ballot is counted. And the process is public for community members and media to observe — Milwaukee and Green Bay will even be live streaming their central count procedures throughout the day.


How will results be reported?

Wisconsin doesn’t have a central system for reporting results statewide. Individual counties will post results to their websites after receiving results from polling sites and central count locations. 

After a polling place closes and all its ballots are fed into the voting equipment, poll workers will print out the results tape and announce the vote totals for the site. From there, the poll workers will pass the results along to their municipal clerk, who will in turn share it with the county clerk. The county clerk has to post the results online within two hours of receiving them.

Central count facilities only report their numbers after they’re completely done processing absentee ballots. So, in places like Milwaukee that are using central count facilities, numbers from in-person polling places will probably be published first, with central count totals added later on.

So, when you’re looking at results on a county website or a media report, pay attention to whether they’re still waiting on some of the ballots. Otherwise, they won’t paint a complete picture of votes in the county.

Even then, results are considered unofficial until county and state officials complete a certification process, which has to be finished by Dec. 1. Certifying the results includes an opportunity to request a recount if a race is close, and a random audit of voting equipment at sites across the state. 


What impact could Wisconsin have on the presidential outcome?

We could get a projected winner of the presidential election before some states, including Wisconsin, are done counting. But it depends a lot on how wide the margins are, and on the Electoral College breakdown.

News organizations usually project winners on Election Day or shortly after, even as some states may still be counting their votes. Calculations take into account how wide the margins are and what proportion of ballots have been tallied so far. 

Because of widespread absentee voting this year, many states will likely be slower to count and report results, which could set back the timeline for predicting a final outcome.

The timeline also depends on how close the race turns out to be — especially in key swing states as each candidate tries to rack up the required 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. 

Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes may end up being key to determining the next president. In the 2016 election, it was the state that tipped Trump over the electoral vote threshold in the Associated Press’s projections when it was called around 2:30 a.m.

Fellow battleground states -- Pennsylvania and Michigan -- also can’t start counting absentee ballots until Election Day, so if the race comes down to these electoral votes, we may be waiting longer to learn of results.

But other key states, like Florida, are predicted to count more quickly. If enough of them flip for one candidate, either Trump or Biden may have enough predicted electoral votes even before Wisconsin is called. 

In any case, experts stress that having to wait longer for a final call doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the election process. It’s just a factor of an election year unlike any other.​