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How To Explain When Kids Want To Know Why The Election Isn’t Decided Election Night

by Erin Geiger Smith

“It’s Election Night in America!” I can almost hear news anchors making that tension-building announcement. But this year, election night may not bring election results. And that makes it difficult to answer some of kids’ presidential FAQs: Who is going to win and when will we know? A tried-and-true parental tactic when we don’t have an answer – diversion! – in this case is an opportunity to educate children on the electoral process and why this year’s presidential results may require a little patience.

Explaining The Electoral College

Before explaining how the Electoral College and state vote counts might extend our wait for results, parents are likely to need to explain what the Electoral College is. (Let’s be honest; it’s not intuitive for anyone!) Start by explaining it’s a group of people – the electors – who officially choose the president based on what their state’s voters tell them to do.

At this point, you’re likely to get a “Wait, what?!” We’re taught, after all, that elections mean the people vote and the candidate with the most votes wins. But the Electoral College is part of the Constitution, and turns that idea on its head a bit.

Explain that while the president isn’t chosen by who wins the most votes of all Americans combined, he or she is chosen by 51 separate popular vote contests – one for each state and Washington, D.C. Each state has a certain number of Electoral College votes based on its population – a state’s number of representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, plus two to signify each states’ U.S. Senators. States with the smallest populations have three, while the most populous state, California, currently has 55.

A candidate needs 270 Electoral College votes to win. In most states, a candidate wins all a state’s Electoral College votes if they win the most votes in that state. So even if a candidate wins California by a tiny margin, he’ll still get all 55 of California’s Electoral College votes. Only Maine and Nebraska split up their Electoral College votes, awarding two to the statewide popular vote winner, and the others by who wins each Congressional district.

A boy helps his mother fill in her choice in the Democratic presidential primary elections at the Taylor Elementary School polling location on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia. Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

What That Means on Election Night

If you’re new to watching election coverage, what the anchors emphasize and what they don’t can be confusing. Those announcing the results, especially on television, will report the total number of votes each candidate has received – the nationwide count – but focus more on how the candidates are doing in particular states.

Children might naturally think the states to watch are the ones with the largest number of Electoral College votes, but that’s where parents get to explain the real stakes: the battleground states! Help your kids understand that because some states’ citizens are predominantly Republicans or predominantly Democrats, it’s easy to predict who will win those – it’s like watching a movie you’ve already seen! But because some states have a more equal mix Republican and Democratic voters, it makes their outcomes difficult to predict. It’s those states, which include Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio, among others, that will determine who wins the presidency. To see where states fall on the predictability range, check out FiveThirtyEight, which depicts its election model as a twisty and colorful snake.

Okay Great, But What Will Take So Long?

Here’s where the difference between TV and reality comes in! We’re used to television anchors saying things like, “We have some breaking news, XYZ News can now project that Candidate A will win the state of Wisconsin.” The language there is the key. It means the network’s number-crunchers have evaluated the percentage of votes counted, how many are left and which parts of the state they’re from, and determined it’s mathematically impossible for Candidate B to win.

Networks are cautious in making those calls, and they usually make the correct one. But the news media projecting wins is separate from the actual vote counts, which aren’t complete until every vote is counted and the results have been certified. The deadline for certification in many states is weeks after Election Day, and states’ electors don’t even meet until December. It’s set up that way to guarantee an accurate count and to allow time to settle any issues that might arise in the process. In other words: vote tabulation taking time is nothing new!

First, the official counts always take longer than election night. And this year, because so many people are voting by mail due to coronavirus, counting all the ballots will simply take longer. (It’s unclear exactly how many will choose to vote by mail, but even the lower estimates predict as many as 35% of voters, compared to about 20% in 2016.) It’s a logistical issue; counting mail-in ballots requires extra steps of opening envelopes and confirming signatures, and that’s before processing the actual votes. Some states, including states that could be close like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, have laws that require they wait until election day to even begin the process.

Bottom Line

If the election is a landslide, meaning one candidate is so far ahead in enough states to easily surpass the 270 Electoral College votes needed, we might know the projected winner on election night. Otherwise, the need to count mail-in ballots in battleground states will make things take a little longer. And in that case, there’s nothing to do but wait.

But wait!

What if the election results are disputed? What if there are lawsuits? All of that is possible, but I think we should save that worry until we have more information on what might actually be the issue, and where. Patience, kiddos. Parents, too!

Erin Geiger Smith is a journalist and the author of Thank You for Voting: The Maddening, Enlightening, Inspiring Truth About Voting in America, and the Thank You for Voting Young Readers' Edition. She has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. She previously worked at Reuters covering legal news. Erin graduated from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, The University of Texas School of Law, and the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Liberty, Texas and now lives in Manhattan with her husband and their son Reed.