In an unprecedented year, it’s only natural that we have an unprecedented election. It’s the first in our lifetimes to occur during a global pandemic, and one in which an unprecedented number of ballots will be cast after being mailed to voters.  

While we’re used to watching the results roll in on live TV on election night, this time it may take days to call the winner. And that’s okay. Accessibility and accuracy are far more important during a close election than immediate results.  

This year, more than 3 million Michigan residents have already requested a mail-in ballot for this election. State election officials predict we could break the record of 5 million votes set in 2008, and two-thirds of those votes could be by mail, according to a recent report in Bridge Michigan

Thanks to the passage of Proposal 3, an ACLU of Michigan- lead initiative on the ballot in 2018, absentee voting in our state has been expanded to include every voter who wants to use that option. Even before the pandemic, voting by mail was becoming more common nationwide, but it’s more popular than ever this year because it provides a safe, secure, and convenient way for many voters to cast a ballot.  

It’s a good thing that vote by mail is becoming more accessible — all eligible voters throughout the United States should have this option, regardless of whether there’s a pandemic. But more mail-in ballots means more time spent counting, because these ballots take longer to process, which is part of why we may not have a winner election night. This isn’t a reason to be disappointed: A lag in results is not only expected, it’s a good sign that the process is working as it’s supposed to. Each and every vote counts.  

That’s not to say that media pundits or even the candidates themselves won’t try to preemptively declare victory. But just because someone says they are the winner doesn’t make it true. Any results reported on election night will be based disproportionately on votes cast in person, as mail-in votes continue to be counted. 

And there’s a distinct partisan divide based on voting method:  Steve Mitchell, a Republican pollster, told Bridge Michigan he’s found that “70 percent of voters who have returned absentee ballots indicate they are voting for Democrat Joe Biden. Those planning to vote on Election Day favor Trump 55 percent to 33 percent.” 

Consequently, results based on in-person votes will inevitably be skewed along partisan lines. One candidate could easily win the majority of in-person votes, but could ultimately lose once all mail-in ballots are counted. And remember: Voters, not candidates or pundits, decide the winner. 

Announcing a winner too soon is not just likely to be inaccurate, it’s dangerous. Conflicting reports of election results undermine election integrity and chip away at voters’ trust in the process. It’s important we temper our expectations and prepare for many days, possibly even weeks, before a winner is announced. While it isn’t reflected in the nonstop metabolism of our news cycle, patience is a democratic virtue.  

There are good reasons for why the increase in mail-in ballots may slow election results. It takes more time to process mail-in ballots for mundane reasons such as taking the ballots out of envelopes, to applying security protocols to verify each mail-in ballot, just as ballots cast in-person are also subject to verification.  Ensuring security and accuracy means more time.  

We may also see delays at the polls, which will have their own pandemic-related adjustments to keep voters and poll workers safe. We’re also expecting high turnout numbers across the nation, which is a good thing: our democracy is strongest when all voices are heard. But taking necessary safety precautions and counting every vote may mean delays in official results.  

While some delays are inevitable, there are ways we can help the process run more smoothly. All voters should make a plan ahead of time. It’s important to remember that we, the people of  Michigan, have the power, and the more of us who vote, the more sound our democratic process.  

The goal of any democratic election is to represent the will of the people, and to achieve that goal, we must count every single vote. Every Michigan voter’s voice deserves to be heard. Let’s prepare for an extended election process to make sure that happens.