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Election Night Is Going to Take All Week. That’s Democracy at Work

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

After the polls close this evening and election results start to pour in, the biggest threat to your faith in democracy may be the constant clicking on your browser’s refresh button.

Election Day in America has never been more transparent, as real-time data is loaded into reporting systems, transmitted on news organizations’ internal distribution channels, and published online. Those results, however, have never been more prone to garbage interpretation in amateur hands. Don’t believe me? Just look at all the armchair analyses two years ago, starting with then-President Donald Trump’s own misguided—and likely disingenuous—reading of the early numbers that suggested a landslide in his favor. As more ballots were counted, his lead eroded, becoming the basis of the Big Lie.
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Which is why Election Day is more like Election Week in reality. And that’s actually good for democracy.

First, an important fact: good Republican numbers will come earlier than Democratic ones tonight in some swing states. That will result in what data nerds call a Red Mirage. That’s because Democrats avail themselves more of early and absentee voting, while Republicans more often vote the day of the election based on the faulty belief it’s safer. Mailed-in ballots take longer to count, don’t always arrive at election offices before Election Day, and often are put at the back of the line.

Also, the raft of early votes this year is massive: 41 million returned and climbing. Any candidate declaring victory tonight either won in something resembling a landslide, or is trying to circumvent a responsible count.

It’s a good bet that this “Red Mirage” phenomenon is going to fuel hundreds of tweets about Pennsylvania, where a tight contest for Senate is unfolding. Dr. Mehmet Oz, a Trump-backed Republican, is highly favored to post an early lead because election officials weren’t allowed to start tallying the piles of ballots sitting in their offices until polls opened today. It’s the same in Wisconsin, where incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson is fighting hard to keep his job.

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In both of those states, strong Democratic candidates are expected to narrow the leads as the evening unfolds—meaning it may mirror what happened in 2020, when many Republicans went to bed believing Trump had prevailed only to wake up and find that the race was still up in the air.

It’s a similar situation in Michigan, where election officials only get a two-day head-start for counting ballots. In those three states alone, more than 3.1 million votes have been cast early, up from 1.8 million votes for those states in 2018, the last non-presidential year.

And in a few other states with potentially competitive races, the Democratic numbers will also come rolling in slower. In Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Texas, officials will start Tuesday with a batch of processed ballots and can start counting them right away. In New Mexico, Virginia and Washington state, officials will start Tuesday having processed early ballots but be prohibited from counting them until polls close. And In New Hampshire, officials can process the incoming ballots starting in the morning but cannot count them until polls close—meaning incumbent Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan may, for a while, look like she’s coasting to a loss.

Responsible strategists in any of these states, but in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in particular, are quietly telling supporters not to expect complete official results early in the night, or even after midnight. In fact, it could take several days to figure out who actually prevailed in Senate races in those three states—two of which could determine the balance of power in the 100-seat chamber come January. Democrats are defending a 50-seat majority, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking powers. And with 70% of the early votes in Pennsylvania coming from Democrats, it lays the groundwork for grievance to bloom.

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Trump exploited the counting rules two years ago—and to this day—to declare himself victorious. He claimed that unscrupulous Democrats “dumped” ballots and “stuffed” the ballot boxes. Such reckless statements fed the false belief that the election had been stolen from Trump, ginned up demonstrations against election chiefs, and culminated with a failed, but deadly, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Which brings us back to this point: it’s going to take a while to count all of the ballots, but they will be counted; early Republican strongholds are unlikely to remain as deep red as they may appear in the 9 o’clock hour; and a possible late surge of blue ballots are part of the process, not a sign of fraud. So step away from the refreshed datasets, give yourself permission to be patient, and absolutely do not go down the conspiracy-wallpapered rabbit hole of voter fraud—because that is exactly what enemies of American democracy and promoters of disinformation want you to do.

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