This op-ed was originally published in the Washington Post on 11/2/2020.

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 Virginia votes will be cast by mail. While we’re used to watching the results roll in on live TV on election night, this time it may take days — possibly even weeks — for the election results to be certified.

And that’s okay. Accessibility and accuracy are far more important during a close election than immediate results. 

This year, more than one million Virginia voters have requested a mail-in absentee ballot – almost double the number of absentee ballots cast in 2016. In previous elections, voters have needed an excuse to vote absentee. Even before the pandemic, Virginia’s new law allowing no-excuse absentee voting would have increased the number of votes by mail, and it’s more popular now 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 should have this option, regardless of whether there’s a pandemic. But more mail-in ballots mean more time spent counting, because absentee ballots that must be counted by hand take longer to process, and no absentee votes can be tallied until Election Day no matter when the votes are cast. This means we may not have winners on election night, including the presidency and hotly contested local races. 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 must be counted for every vote to count.

That’s not to say that media pundits or even the candidates themselves won’t try to declare victory preemptively. 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 appears to be a distinct partisan divide based on voting method. A Post-Schar School survey found that nearly seven in 10 absentee ballots in Virginia were cast for Joe Biden, while 59 percent of those who plan to vote in person on Election Day say they’ll vote for Donald Trump. If polls are accurate, results based largely on in-person votes may, therefore, be skewed along partisan lines. One candidate could easily win the majority of in-person votes, and could ultimately lose once all mail-in ballots are counted. Remember: Voters, not candidates or pundits, decide the winner.

Announcing a winner before all the votes are counted 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. We need to temper our expectations and prepare for many days, possibly even weeks, before the election results are certified and a candidate can be declared to have been elected. While it isn’t reflected in the nonstop metabolism of our news cycle, patience is a democratic virtue. 

We may also see delays at the polls on Election Day, which will have their own pandemic-related adjustments to keep voters and poll workers safe. High turnout numbers are expected 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 even for Election Day in-person votes. 

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. If you requested your absentee ballot but haven’t sent it in yet, submit it as soon as possible to be counted. Absentee ballots will be counted as long as they are postmarked by 7:00 p.m. on Nov. 3 and received by noon on Nov. 6, but you may want to hand deliver your ballot to your registrar’s office or deposit in a secure ballot box on or before Election Day. If you plan to vote in person on Election Day, check your polling place as it may have changed since the last election.

We need to prepare ourselves for a long wait between the close of the polls on Nov. 3 and the day that the election results are officially certified. We need to be ready to discount and dismiss any premature claims of victory before every vote is counted. 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 Virginia voter’s voice deserves to be heard. Let’s prepare for an extended election process to make sure that happens.