We know when the 2020 presidential election campaign started.

It was Jan. 20, 2017, when President Trump broke with tradition – a phrase we’d hear again a few times – and formally announced his candidacy for re-election on the same day he was sworn in.

He held his first campaign rally a few weeks later, and got his first opponent six months after that. (Anybody remember former Maryland U.S. Rep. John Delany?)

One hundred and ninety-two weeks and $14 billion in combined campaign spending later, here we are.

And where is that, exactly?

Tuesday is Election Day, and sometime after midnight on the East Coast, we may know the enough of the results to project a winner

But because of the COVID pandemic we might not. More people in more states are using absentee balloting this year to avoid crowds at the polls, and those ballots take longer to process.

Some states don’t allow those ballots to be counted until after the polls close, and a number of states allow ballots that were postmarked on Election Day to be counted, even if they arrive in the mail days later. (Maine is not one of these states, so if you still haven’t returned yours, drop it off by Tuesday night, don’t mail it.)

Trump has been a big supporter of counting as few votes as possible, and because he thinks absentee voters favor his opponent, he’s been pushing to exclude them from the final tally.

“It would be very, very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on Nov. 3, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate and I don’t believe that that’s by our laws,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday.

It was the same day Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh issued an opinion in favor of an Election Day deadline for the receipt of absentee ballots in Wisconsin, even if that meant throwing out thousands of ballots that could be delayed in an overburdened mail system.

It would be worth it, Kavanaugh wrote, “to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after Election Day and potentially flip the results of an election.”

He added, “Those states also want to be able to definitively announce the results of the election on election night, or as soon as possible thereafter.”

Kavanaugh’s comments sound reasonable if you don’t know who declares a winner on election night.

It’s not the states, Justice Kavanaugh. It’s the media.

If we’d waited for the official tabulation of Maine votes in the 2018 election, we would have reported the results on Nov. 26, three weeks after the polls had closed.

Instead, the Press Herald newsroom collected results from town clerks all over Maine as they were counted. We declared Janet Mills the winner in the race to be Maine’s 75th governor, even though it wasn’t official for 20 more days.

In the presidential race, it’s more complicated. The television networks use exit polls and statistical modeling to interpret results. An algorithm tells them when they have enough data to make a call.

That process is going to be even harder this year since you can’t exit poll a voter who mailed in a  ballot. The first numbers to come in might not tell the whole story.

And what exactly is Kavanaugh worried about flipping?

There are no results until you have counted the votes, and absentee ballots are no less valid than the ones fed into the optical scan machine in a polling place.

Kavanaugh should know better, but he’s not the only one who thinks the election night reports are official. The networks have spent millions to build sets and design visual displays that create a sense of authority.

But everyone needs to remember that they are watching a TV show. The news departments are doing their best to report the most accurate data possible, but it’s not always possible.

This year, there will be tremendous pressure on the networks not to make a premature call.

But they should be just as worried about an excess of caution, leaving the outcome in doubt and dragging out a dangerous period of uncertainty.

The pressure is going to be on all of us to be patient and wait for the results.

The longest campaign in history might be over on Tuesday night. But if it isn’t, we should be prepared to wait.

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