[Image courtesy of WithoutWax.TV]
Not surprisingly, the recent news about the muddled finish in the GOP Iowa caucuses has got people talking about what it means to say an election is "over".
To an election official, an election is over when the outcome has been certified according to applicable state or local law. At that point, the process for that election is "final-final" and in the books. That's why election administrators are so insistent about calling Election Night returns "unofficial" returns; experience teaches that lots of factors - including everything from math errors to multiparty litigation - can make the Election Night results turn out to be incomplete or incorrect.
To candidates, campaigns and the media, however, an election is usually "over" on Election Night. At that point, the running narrative - horse race, policy debate, or something in between - is generally seen to be resolved and peoples' attention moves on to next steps: how a candidate will handle victory/defeat, what the outcome means for one or more running policy debates - even who will (and won't) be a candidate in the NEXT election.
The challenge, of course, is to find a way to bring these two views into closer harmony. Just about every election cycle, one or more administrators gets into hot water because Election Night returns weren't made available fast enough - starving an audience hungry for news. When that happens, I'm generally sympathetic to those who say we needn't rush the election process and that everyone concerned needs to be more patient about waiting for the official outcome.
At the same time, I do think the field of election administration needs to think about ways in which we can shorten the amount of time it takes to go from unofficial returns to certified results. That doesn't mean rush the process - which needs time to complete - but rather to treat timeliness of final results (including any necessary cross-checks or audits) as a necessity rather than a luxury. How to balance this with other priorities is of course an open question, but in the current environment states and localities may want to look for ways to finish their counts before their statutory or traditional deadline for doing so.
If nothing else, shortening the window between unofficial returns and final certification would eliminate the "are we there yet?" phenomenon that always seems to result when a storyline born on Election Night begins to collide with actual election results.