AUSTIN -- At the University of Texas, students in Prof. Sean Theriault's Intro to American Politics course spent Election Eve taking part in an informal presidential poll. Wearing blue shirts in support of Democratic President Barack Obama and red shirts in support of Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Theriault's students are ready for a winner to be declared.
But what if the actual vote is so close it takes an extra day or even an extra week or more to get a final tally? It's happened before and could happen again. The 2000 presidential election resulted in Democrat Al Gore winning the popular vote, while Republican George W. Bush won the electoral votes needed to constitutionally take office.
"The election is very close, but it's not as close as it was on the day before the election in 2000 or 2004," explained Theriault. "In order for it to be as close as those elections, the state polls in some of those battleground states would all have to be off by about two percentage points. Heading into the election in 2000 and 2004, we were talking about .3 and .1 in Ohio and Florida. We knew those were going to be the key states and the polls coming out of those states were very close, but here there's a little bit more of a cushion for Obama."
Theriault argues this election will hinge in large part on the swing state Ohio, which has received renewed interest from both campaigns in the finals days of the race. From long lines for early voters last week in Florida to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, any number of factors could delay the ticket tallying process in this election's key swing states. In the event of a virtual toss-up, Theriault says the way those states decide to count their votes could decide the fate of the entire nation.
"It doesn't kick up to the federal government or the Supreme Court or anything like that until after state governments handle that," explained Theriault. "They have up to three weeks in some states to certify in particular counties, so it could be a long, drawn-out process."
A deceptive quiet hung outside the Travis County Clerk's Elections Office on Airport Boulevard on Election Eve. Behind the doors, however, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said staff spent the Monday before the big day busily preparing for Tuesday's rush to the polls.
"This is the day we've all been waiting for," said DeBeauvoir. "This is applied democracy."
Anticipating lines across the county on Election Day, DeBeauvoir recommends voting earlier in the morning for the shortest wait. For the first time during a presidential election, Travis County voters can cast their ballots at any of 207 county polling locations as part of the county's new vote center system.
In order to prevent certain locations from being overloaded, voters are advised to pick a location that's in their neighborhood or along their normal route. Despite waits expected to lengthen past the hour mark as the day wears on, DeBeauvoir says Travis County will look nowhere near like the images from Florida.
"We will not have those problems here," said DeBeauvoir. "We're going to have a little bit of a wait in line, but that's about all Travis County voters will have to put up with."
Just like the millions of Americans who will be awaiting election results Tuesday night, long lines leading to a delayed count is something neither candidate wants. In a worst-case scenario, an extremely protracted count could potentially reduce post-victory momentum in the even of President Obama's reelection, or affect the transfer of power in the event of a Romney victory.
"The longer the period, the more the people are going to question the results, and the less time, especially if it's a Romney administration, he's going to have to assemble a cabinet and advisors and everything like that," said Theriault. "Clearly not what he wants. Whoever wins, I think I speak for all the political world and all the politicians, we need a clear winner tomorrow night."
Stay with KVUE for complete election coverage all day Tuesday on air, online and on social media. We'll have live updates every 30 minutes in prime time, followed by a special one-hour edition of the Nightbeat at 10 p.m. Also Tuesday night, KVUE.com online correspondent Rebekah Hood hosts a live conversation on KVUE.com about the elections. Join Rebekah and an impressive panel of local political analysts on KVUE.com at 8 p.m., as they answer questions about the presidential, state and local races. Submit your questions on Facebook on The KVUE Insider or Twitter using the hashtag #kvuevote.