November 3, 2020 6:30 AM EST

July was supposed to be the month that Ritchie Torres, an impassioned 32-year-old New York City Councilman, began planning his transition from representing the Bronx in City Hall to fighting for the same borough in Congress. “I was eager to get to work,” says Torres. “Because once your election is certified, you can begin the transition, you can begin laying the groundwork for a smooth transition to Congress.”

Instead, Torres calls July his “lost month.” Despite carrying a significant lead on New York’s primary night, June 23—and ultimately beating the other candidates by double-digit margins—the results for NY-15 and one other New York state congressional district wasn’t officially certified until six weeks later, on Aug. 4.

That unprecedented delay was largely due to the historic number of voters who cast their ballots by mail. In June, nearly 40% of New York primary voters opted to vote by mail, compared to closer to 4% in previous New York elections. Voting by mail is a safe and secure way to cast a ballot—despite President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims to the contrary—but counting such ballots generally takes longer than tallying those cast in-person. In most states, election officials must remove mailed ballots from their outer envelopes and secrecy sleeves, verify the voter’s registration and signature, and then feed that ballot into a scanner. Processing thousands—or tens of millions—of votes in that manner takes a great deal of time.

In Torres’ case, the hold-up was frustrating but the implications were limited. But in the general election, and particularly in the races in a handful of battleground districts and states, significant delays in declaring a winner could cause serious, cascading problems. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia will likely not count all of their ballots by the end of Election Night this year. That could mean that initial returns appear misleading, depending on which ballots each state or county counts first. For hours or days, early returns could indicate one party is carrying a significant lead, which then evaporates as more ballots are counted. Pundits have dubbed this phenomenon the “blue shift” or the “red mirage.”

The implications could be dire if politicians or pundits use those early leads to speciously claim invalid victories. And if those early leads disappear as more ballots are counted, some may use that shift to allege fraud or that something sinister is afoot in our electoral process. Already, President Trump and his campaign aides have erroneously suggested that a winner should be called on election night. On Nov. 1, Trump adviser Jason Miller said on ABC that unless a victor is called on Election Day, Democrats will “try to steal it back after the election.”

Such claims are entirely baseless. Even in a normal election year, states do not certify results on election night. It takes days and sometimes weeks for officials to count every ballot, particularly those that arrive late, from absentee voters and military personnel overseas. But the 2020 election poses a particularly unique scenario.

In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at polling places, most states expanded access to mail and absentee voting this year and tens of millions of Americans took advantage of that option. But voters chose whether to take advantage of these changes largely on partisan lines. According to a Marquette University Law School poll from August, 55% of Democrats said they planned to vote by mail, versus just 15% of Republicans. In a similar divide, 67% of Republicans said they planned to vote in person on Election Day, compared to just 27% of Democrats.

Election workers process mail-in ballots at the Orange County Registrar of Voters in Santa Ana, Calif., on Oct. 19, 2020.
Mario Tama—Getty Images

A barrage of mail ballots

Some states changed their rules on when ballots can be processed and counted this year, in an effort to prepare for the expected barrage of mailed ballots and to help officials meet the difficult election certification deadlines. (States must have counted their votes and resolved court contests by Dec. 8 or risk Congress getting involved in disputes over their chosen Electoral College members. On Dec. 14, the chosen electors must convene in their states to cast their ballots in order to later submit them to Congress.) But how, exactly, states’ rules allow election officials to start processing and counting absentee ballots changes the way early results will appear.

In some states, like Iowa and Ohio, early results may give the impression that Democrats are enjoying a strong lead, which may disappear later, as more in-person votes are tallied. In Iowa, the disparity is the result of a September decision by the state’s Legislative Council, which unanimously allowed counties to begin processing absentee ballots on Oct. 31. Iowans’ ballots must remain in their secrecy sleeves, but can now be removed from the outer absentee ballot envelope, buying election officials some time. When state officials start counting these ballots the day before Election Day, per the state’s existing rules, Democrats may appear to take an early lead.

It’s a similar situation in Ohio, where election officials can start processing ballots nearly a month before Election Day. Absentee ballots received by 7:30 pm on Election Night are also typically the first results the state releases, according to Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose’s office. Democrats in that case may, again, appear to have a strong lead early on. (Roughly 675,000 Ohio voters had already returned absentee ballots by mid-October.) A spokesperson for Ohio’s Secretary of State says she expects most results will come on Tuesday evening into Wednesday morning, but that “the focus of [its] county boards is accuracy, not speed.”

Meanwhile, in a few critical swing states, Republican legislators blocked initiatives that would have allowed states to start processing absentee ballots before Election Day. In Pennsylvania, ballots can’t be touched until 7 am on Nov. 3, but several counties in the state have said they won’t even begin tallying absentee ballots until Nov. 4, because their staffs are too small to concurrently keep up with in-person voting operations and mailed ballots. “We all need to adjust our expectations that we will not have a formal, clear understanding of the winner in every county for as long as a week. That’s expected,” said Ray Murphy, the deputy director of Pennsylvania Voice, a coalition of organizations aimed toward increasing democratic participation, on a recent press call.

In Wisconsin, state election officials can begin processing and counting mailed ballots on Tuesday morning, but rules in 39 municipalities—including Milwaukee—require absentee ballots to be counted at separate facilities than in-person ones. That quirk may result in a disparity in election results. Results from in-person polling places, which are more likely to be Republican, may be released before results of a mail-ballot count. Poll workers in a few Wisconsin counties will also have to fill out as many as 13,500 replacement absentee ballots due to a printing error, adding to the likelihood of delays.

Accordingly, Americans should be prepared to wait longer than is typical to see results in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They should also be prepared to see who is in the lead to flip, sometimes multiple times, as new ballots are counted. “It’s very likely that the results as they look on election night are actually not the true votes of the public,” warns Sylvia Albert, the director of elections and voting at Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “In an election that we expect to be close, I think it is very likely that it’s going to take time, and we will not have a winner on election night.”

A late result ‘doesn’t mean anything is wrong’

Many states’ rules also allow mailed ballots that were postmarked by Election Day, or the day before, to arrive later in the month and still be counted. In the battleground state of North Carolina, ballots that are postmarked by Election Day can arrive as late as Nov. 12. In Ohio, also a swing state, ballots postmarked by Nov. 2 will be counted if they are delivered by Nov. 13. In Pennsylvania, mailed ballots that arrive by Nov. 6 will also be counted. (The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling on this extended deadline, but has also indicated it could revisit the matter after the election.)

An influx of late-arriving ballots isn’t out of the question, especially in Butler County, Penn. Nearly 40,000 registered voters requested mail ballots in the area north of Pittsburg, while only 24% of those had been returned as of late October. The low rate has state Election officials concerned that thousands of ballots were lost in transit, or were delivered very late. In 2016, several swing states’ races were determined by very small margins. In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore in Florida, the state that determined the outcome of the election, by just 537 votes.

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, a Republican, says she’s well aware of how long it takes to tabulate mail-in ballots. Her state became one of the first in the country to conduct all of its elections primarily by mail in 2011. She predicts that it might take time for states that haven’t had as much practice to learn the ropes.

“It’s entirely possible in some states, just because of the crushing volumes that they’re anticipating, that they may take a couple of days or a week even to really get through the volume that they’re going to see,” she tells TIME. “And that doesn’t mean anything is wrong. It doesn’t mean any errors have been made. It doesn’t mean there’s any voter fraud, it means that they’re really focusing, trying to do it right and accurately, and we want to have accurate results.”

Ritchie Torres knows that struggle all too well. If he beats his GOP challenger in his very liberal Bronx district, he will become the first openly gay, Afro-Latino congressman in January. He’s looking forward to hearing the official, certified result of the Nov. 3 election, whenever it comes. But, he says, he feels fine waiting and recommends everyone else relax, too. “Be patient,” he says. “Understand there’s a difference between the growing pains of vote by mail and voter fraud.”

“All Americans have a right to cast a ballot immediately and have their ballots counted immediately,” he continues. “But we’re experimenting with vote-by-mail on a national scale for the first time and with experimentation comes growing pains.”

Write to Abby Vesoulis at abby.vesoulis@time.com.

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