Absentee ballots, the number of which has surged in the weeks leading up to Election Day, could be yet another cause of delay. More states than ever offer "no excuse" absentee voting, and both parties have strongly encouraged voters to take advantage of the option. But absentee ballots must be hand-counted starting on Election Day, a process that takes a significant amount of time.
DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said "it's certainly possible" that no winner will be declared on Election Day, but he cautioned that any delay will not necessarily be the result of a dispute over the accuracy of the balloting.
"A delay in the conclusion does not in and of itself mean that the system has collapsed," said Soaries, whose commission was created to help administer federal elections under the Help America Vote Act of 2002. "It could mean quite the opposite -- that the system is working."
Not everyone believes there will be a delay in announcing a winner on Tuesday, or even that the race will be particularly close. Lawrence R. Jacobs, director of the 2004 Election Project at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, argues that both history and statistics indicate the race is unlikely to be so close that it results in delays or legal fights of the kind seen in 2000.
Only two of the last 10 presidential elections had total voting margins of less than 1 percent, Jacobs said, and even in those races the differences in close states were measured in thousands or tens of thousands of votes. Furthermore, Jacobs said, even if a state such as Ohio remains undecided, the odds are slim that it will matter to the overall race.
"Florida was a historical freak, an anomaly," Jacobs said. "We had a few hundred votes making a difference. . . . History suggests that is very unlikely to happen again."
Nonetheless, election officials and party lawyers are preparing for a long battle. The Kerry-Edwards campaign, for example, has chartered at least five planes that will be sitting on a runway, ready to carry lawyers to any remaining battlegrounds early Wednesday.
"We're hoping against all hope that this will be decided," said Mark Weaver, a lawyer for the Ohio GOP. "But every prudent election lawyer who watched Florida in 2000 is . . . hoping for the best and planning for the worst."
In New Mexico, which Democrat Al Gore won by 366 votes in 2000, election chief Rebecca Vigil-Giron is predicting that the state could have 30,000 provisional ballots cast. That would be nearly 100 times the margin by which the state's election was decided four years ago.
"I'm hopeful it won't be a problem, but I just don't know," Vigil-Giron said. "Every election official out there is just praying that whoever wins, wins by a big margin."