Election Day: What to expect in Utah and in battleground states

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A woman photographs her act of voting, putting her ballot in a drop box at the Salt Lake County Offices in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.

It’s not hyperbole to say Utahns are excited to vote, and that enthusiasm has only increased in recent weeks. This is a consequential election, held during a pandemic, so it means election night will be a bit different across the country.

What should you expect in Utah and how can you smartly track the national results as they come in? Here’s what you need to know to be an effective armchair expert Tuesday night.

Utah’s early turnout

A new survey from Y2 Analytics found a big jump in the percentage of Utah voters who said they were casting their ballots early, rising from 47% in a similar poll at the beginning of October to 63%.

The latest survey, conducted among 660 likely Utah voters from Oct. 15 to 24, also found that just 9% said they will hit the polls on Election Day.

An even number of respondents — 42% each — said they voted by mail or were hand-delivering their ballots to a drop box.

Like in much of the country, Democrats were slightly more likely to take advantage of early voting, with 94% saying they either mailed or dropped off their ballots, compared with 80% of Republicans. And conversely, 13% of Republicans said they were going to vote in person on Election Day, while just 2% of Democrats planned to do so. In Utah, residents can register and vote on Election Day. Details can be found at vote.utah.gov.

Utah’s 29 county clerks have already processed more than 1 million ballots, and are still working through thousands more received over the weekend and on Monday. Overall, that astounding tally represents 54% turnout so far among all of Utah’s registered voters. But there are lots of registered voters who don’t participate.

Here’s another way to look at it: Utah’s early turnout is about 89% of the state’s 2016 total turnout. And we have Election Day still to go.

According to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of public voter files, about 57% of those who have had their votes processed so far are registered as Republican, 24% are unaffiliated, and 16% are registered Democrats. That roughly matches state registration overall, with a slight turnout advantage for Democrats so far.

Among Utah’s most populous counties, Salt Lake and Davis are seeing higher than average turnout for the state as a whole, while Cache, Washington, Weber and Utah counties have seen lower-than-average votes to this point.

You’d think with so many votes already in, that Election Day might be sleepy, but Utah’s elections officials are still on the lookout for problems, especially if there’s a higher-than-expected in-person turnout.

“Long lines are still a concern,” said Justin Lee, Utah’s elections director. “We hope voters drop off their ballots in drop boxes or simply take them to the polls and drop them off and only use polling locations if they really need extra help.”

Election officials say Utah’s early vote could only be 75% to 80% of the total. They won’t know for sure since any ballot postmarked by Monday will be counted.

Utah’s returns

Most of the suspense in Utah will be over a few minutes after the polls close at 8 p.m., when county clerks will start releasing the results of all of those processed votes.

After that first round, we’ll probably be able to call some of the big races in Utah, especially if recent polling is correct. That could include which presidential candidate pockets Utah’s six electoral votes, what happens in Utah’s race for governor, other statewide races, and most of the congressional seats. But there are likely to be some tight races.

Lee said results should continue to trickle in all evening long.

“Some counties only give us one upload, while others provide several updates throughout the night,” he said. “We usually wait until close to midnight for all counties to be done.”

Even though Utah will likely come off the presidential board early, with Donald Trump ahead of Joe Biden in polls, there will still be some drama to keep your attention. Of particular interest will be Trump’s margin of victory here. Recent polling puts him slightly above 50%. If it’s unusually close in Utah, a state no Democrat has carried in more than 50 years, that could be good news for Democrats in some of the other down-ballot races.

Don’t expect to know the winner in Utah’s 4th Congressional District race between Rep. Ben McAdams and Republican challenger Burgess Owens on Tuesday. In 2018, it was two weeks before McAdams squeaked past Rep. Mia Love by 694 votes. We could be in for another long wait. The same may be true for some state legislative and local races, too.

How to track the national results

Even before Utah’s results are known, there will be lots to watch as the afternoon turns to evening in the Eastern states.

The first polls close Tuesday at 4 p.m. Mountain Time in most of Indiana and Kentucky, as those states straddle a time zone and are expected to go to Trump. But the action really gets underway at 5 p.m., when most of the polls in the critical swing state of Florida close. Results there should be released fairly quickly as Florida tabulates ballots before Election Day. If Joe Biden wins Florida, it’s likely he’s on his way to the White House as experts say there’s almost no path for Trump’s reelection without this pivotal swing state.

Polls also close in South Carolina at 5 p.m., which has Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham in a shockingly close reelection contest. Voting ends in Virginia and Georgia at that time too. Georgia is a surprise toss-up this year after voting for every Republican presidential candidate since 1972 except for native son Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992.

The critical states of North Carolina and Ohio close their polling at 5:30 p.m. And then at 6 p.m. results from Alabama, Maine and Pennsylvania will start rolling in. Texas and Michigan will have some of their polls close at this time, with the rest an hour later. Texas is another state that could be shockingly close. Polling shows Democrats may have a shot at flipping Texas blue for the first time since 1980.

At 7 p.m, get ready for an onslaught of results. Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and Wisconsin all close their polls.

Tracking these results won’t be like it has been in past elections, especially with each state having its own rules on how votes are counted. So don’t be shocked to see Biden up big in some states, such as Pennsylvania, early, only to see Trump surge not long after. That’s because the mail-in ballots already processed will be released first followed by the results from people who vote on Election Day.

It will be similar to what we’ll see in Utah. The early vote tends to be a bit better for the Democrats than those who vote later in the process.

In the 2020 election, patience will be key. It’s a good bet we won’t know who wins the presidential race until after midnight or possibly for days. That’s not all that unusual. The presidential count has stretched beyond Election Day in three of the past five elections — 2000, 2004 and 2016.

Join us on election night

Please join The Salt Lake Tribune’s political team on election night for a special edition of “Trib Talk” starting at 8:30 pm. Hosted by Bryan Schott, the team will offer live updates and analysis as well as interviews with candidates and political experts. They’ll answer questions as well. The election night special will be available at sltrib.com and on The Tribune’s Facebook page. You can tweet questions using the hashtag #TribTalk or email them to TribTalk@sltrib.com.