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Counting the vote: When will we know who won?

File photo of election workers processing mail-in ballots.
File photo of election workers processing mail-in ballots. (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

You know people are voting by mail and at early voting sites in record numbers. Are they doing that to avoid the pandemic in crowds on Election Day or will there be a large turnout Tuesday, as well? And how does all this impact when votes get counted and results released?

Between News4Jax and The Associated Press, we’ve spent months preparing for this election and here’s some insight into how we expect it to unfold.

Over 100 million Americans may vote before Election Day, but each state has different rules on when it’s allowed to actually start counting those ballots. That is going to produce results coming in at very different times — perhaps days or even weeks after Election Day.

In some places, including Florida and Georgia, election officials can begin processing ballots weeks before Election Day. That means workers can start verifying voter information while also removing ballots from their envelopes to physically get them ready for tabulation. Doing so readies ballots for counting on Election Day and will speed up the release of results.

Because well over half the vote in Florida will come from mail and early voting, the results of millions of ballots could be released within an hour or two of the polls closing at 7 p.m. (or 8 p.m. in the Panhandle). The results of Election Day voting will show throughout the evening, but state elections officials expect to count everything on election night except mail ballots that arrive in the final hours -- likely only a few thousand ballots.

It’s not that way everywhere.

In some of the most critical battleground states, laws prevent the early processing of ballots. So on Tuesday, officials will have to run an in-person election while also working through the unprecedented number of mail-in votes.

This dynamic is likely to delay results and heighten the potential for big shifts if in-person vote tallies that come out election night are upended by the results of mail-in ballots in the coming days.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly warned of voting fraud without offering any evidence. Because of that, there are concerns that he will use delays in vote-counting to declare results illegitimate. While results might come in later than usual this year, that's because of a change in how people are voting, not malfeasance or fraud.

Here is another wrinkle: Nationwide delivery delays at the U.S. Postal Service are sparking fears that ballots might not arrive in time to be counted. Republicans, including Trump's campaign, have been filing lawsuits to stop election officials from counting ballots that are delivered after Election Day.

For example: As of right now in Pennsylvania, votes that arrive by mail three days after Nov. 3 will be counted, after an intense legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court last week. Republicans have filed another suit against the extension. Also, Pennsylvania doesn’t allow early processing of mail-in ballots, further complicating matters.

In Michigan, another hotly contested state, an appeals court has struck down a 14-day ballot-counting extension, leading the state's top election official to urge voters to drop off their ballots in person rather than use the Postal Service. Courts have also nixed similar extensions in Wisconsin and Indiana.

Like the campaigns and so many other things in 2020, election results might be chaotic and contentious. Will we know before going to bed Tuesday who will be our next president? There’s no guarantee.

The good news is we’ll be with you as long as it takes to get answers. We have staffed Wednesday and the following days as if we’re still in election-night coverage, continuing to report developments and get results.