But the extremely tight races in several states, shifting voter identification requirements, the increased use of “provisional” ballots and automatic recount provisions in key states all expand the possibility of a prolonged, slow-motion finish.
Ten states in recent years have passed laws requiring voters to show government-issued photo identification. This, in turn, has prompted lawsuits by those who say not all eligible voters can meet the requirements.
When this and other questions come up about a voter’s eligibility, federal law (passed after the confusion and recriminations over the 2000 recount in Florida) requires that states at least allow voters to cast “provisional” ballots. These votes are to be counted later, if an individual provides adequate proof they are registered to vote.
At least 2.1 million provisional ballots were submitted in 2008 and 68% were eventually counted, according to the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project. But the assessment of those ballots can take days, potentially affecting the outcome in states where the number of challenged ballots exceeds the front-runner’s lead.
Sen. John F. Kerry didn’t concede Ohio, and the presidential election of 2004, until Wednesday morning, because it initially appeared provisional ballots might hold enough votes to at least give him the prospect of overtaking President George W. Bush.
Shifting rules on voter ID could mean more precinct challenges in 2012, meaning more provisional ballots and more votes counted after Nov. 6.
Then comes the possibility of recounts. Several key swing states, where polls show Romney and Obama running neck-and-neck, require automatic recounts if the margin between the candidates is narrow enough.
Colorado requires a recount if the margin is “less than or equal to 0.5%” of the highest vote-getter's total, according to information from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Florida’s recount process kicks in with a gap of 0.5% of the total votes cast in the contest. Ohio’s recount margin is 0.25% of the total votes cast.
That’s not to say that recounts could not occur in other states. Petitions for discretionary recounts are entertained by at least 39 states, according to the conference of state legislatures, though rules vary as to when re-tallies are granted.
Ultimately all the counting needs to be done by Dec. 17. That is the date that electors—as determined by the (mostly) winner-take-all rules of the electoral college—meet in each of the state capitols and cast their votes for the presidential candidates.
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