When will we know who won the Georgia Senate runoff elections? Probably not tonight

The eyes of the nation tonight turn to Georgia, where voters will finally decide two U.S. Senate runoff elections that will determine the balance of power on Capitol Hill over the next two years.

Though polls closed at 7 p.m. Eastern Time, more than 3 million Georgians had already cast their ballots in early voting—a dynamic that many observers believe bodes well for Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock as they look to unseat Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively.

But despite 40% of registered Georgia voters having had their say ahead of time, the process of counting and tallying the state’s ballots will likely take more time than many would think—raising the distinct possibility that we won’t have winners declared by Wednesday morning, if not later.

While some states allow mail-in ballots to be counted ahead of Election Day, Georgia’s laws prohibit the counting and tabulating of those ballots before polls close tonight. Poll workers have, however, been allowed to begin processing the ballots—scanning, verifying, and preparing them for tabulation—in advance of Jan. 5.

That means that the long and gradual process of actually tallying millions of votes won’t begin until this evening, and could stretch on well into Wednesday before we have a clear picture of how each race is shaping up—let alone who’s primed to win.

Once the counting begins, Republicans are expected to see an early advantage, since the more rural and conservative areas of the state generally report their results earlier than the more metropolitan, liberal-leaning areas like Atlanta and Savannah and their surrounding suburbs. What’s more, votes cast in person—which have skewed heavily Republican in this pandemic-blighted election season—are usually counted before absentee and mail-in ballots, which trend considerably more in Democrats’ favor.

But in the end, how quickly the winners are declared will depend very much on how close each race ends up being. And since both contests appear separated by exceptionally thin margins, it could realistically take days before we know for sure—as evidenced by the presidential election, when it took 10 days for Joe Biden to finally be declared the winner of the state by around 12,000 votes. And even then, razor-thin margins like that one would further prolong matters, since it would activate Georgia election rules mandating an automatic recount if the margin of victory is less than 0.5%.

So if you have to get up early for work on Wednesday, it’s probably best not to stay up late waiting for the results of the runoffs to be announced. Chances are, we probably won’t have clear-cut winners by the time you wake up.

More politics coverage from Fortune:

  • The biggest conspiracy theories of 2020 (and why they won’t die)
  • Under Biden, expect more scrutiny of Big Tech and mergers
  • Why a key Georgia county flipped from red to blue—and what it means for Democrats
  • Pfizer, Trump, and Biden: A twisted triangle that’s complicating COVID-19 relief
  • Biden’s first 100 days: Student loan debt won’t go anywhere

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