We don’t know what exactly election night will bring, but it’s unlikely that it will be the same straightforward process that has brought us accurate (if unofficial) results before midnight (almost) every other election cycle. And even if things go smoothly, the night is likely to be contentious and stressful for many of us. So let’s plan now.
Before we even get to election night, we need to get through the day. Perhaps you will be at work, or finding time to vote, or volunteering with get-out-the-vote efforts. If so: let those distract you. Focus on the task to be done.
If you have a long empty day stretching out in front of you, make some plans now to give that time some structure. Exercise, meditation, volunteering, and productive activities like errands or even crafts can all help you expend your nervous energy while you’re waiting.
If you need to vote, make sure to plan for that too. Double check your registration status and your state’s laws. Decide when you’re doing it and how you will get to the polls. Prepare yourself with information on what to do if you’re turned away; in many cases you can fill out a provisional ballot.
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While you’re doing all this, you may be tempted to brace for the worst. But it can be helpful to engage in cautious optimism, experts have told us. This way you get the mental benefits of allowing yourself to hope for the best. Explain it to your pessimist side this way: if the worst is going to happen anyway, why not enjoy those positive emotions while you still can?
It also helps to think through the possible scenarios. If Trump wins, what will you do? How can you mentally plan for that? What if Biden wins? What if the election is too close to call or is legally contested for weeks or months on end? How will you mentally get through that time? Thinking about best-case and worst-case outcomes can help us feel grounded and prepared no matter what happens.
With record numbers of votes being cast by mail, the process of tallying the results becomes a bit more complicated. Normally, absentee votes are only a small percentage of the results, and it becomes clear by the end of election night who is going to win regardless of the mail-in tally. This year, that may not be a safe bet.
Similarly, television networks and newspapers can usually get a decent handle on numbers from exit polls, which are conducted by simply asking people exiting polling places who they voted for. But if there is a political divide—for example, if Democrats are more likely to vote by mail—then these polls become less reliable.
While all of this suggests that the usual ways of reporting are less reliable than they have been in the past, media outlets may try to spin the situation the opposite way—for example, by trying to predict what will happen based on how many votes have been cast early. In truth, we’ve never had an el