Part 2: What to Expect When You’re Expecting Election Results

What to Expect When You’re Expecting Election Results

Election day is less than two weeks away, but many voters across the country have been casting ballots for days or even weeks. Mail ballots and early in-person votes are generally the first ballots cast in states that offer this type of voting, but whether they are the first results available on election night depends on the processing system in place.

As mentioned in a previous post, the systems and timelines used to process and count ballots vary from state to state. In states that allow sufficient time prior to election day for election officials to process ballots, mail ballots are often the first wave of results available to the public on election night. In states that do not begin processing until the morning of election day, results may be mixed in with later batches of in-person votes. However states don’t just fall into these two extreme categories. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in rapid changes in election procedures across the country and states like Georgia are implementing new systems to support the surge in mail ballots for this election.

Colorado is a great example of a “mature” vote by mail system with generous processing timelines. It is a “vote at home” state where every registered voter receives a ballot in the mail and has numerous in-person voting options. In 2020, 4,111,226 voters will receive a ballot at their home. This would be an astronomical number of ballots to fully process and count on election day. Fortunately, Colorado allows election officials to begin processing ballots as soon as they are received and count ballots more than two weeks prior to election day. Large jurisdictions that use best practices have often processed all ballots received prior to election day by election day. This means that the majority of election results are available to the public immediately at the close of polls.

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States like Georgia are on the right path and taking the lead from Colorado in their response to the unique circumstances presented by this election. While Georgia does not allow ballots to be counted until election day, ballots can be processed completely beginning 15 days before the election and signatures can be verified upon receipt of the ballot. This means that come the morning of election day, the majority of mail ballots received are ready to be counted. At the time of publication, 848,620 mail ballots have been returned in Georgia this year and those ballots, combined with early in-person votes, will be the first results available in the state. This number will only grow, as more of the 1.7+ million voters that requested mail ballots turn them in. The National Vote at Home Institute predicts that the vast majority of ballots received prior to election day will have been processed and will be ready for counting on election day.

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In states like Pennsylvania, where ballots can neither be processed nor counted until 7 a.m. on election day, expect a delay in the reporting of results. Election officials will be experiencing a surge in mail ballots this year, with over 2.9 million ballots having been requested by voters in Pennsylvania.

While other states like Georgia have the benefit of weeks of preparation for a similar, but smaller amount of mail ballots, Pennsylvania will be expected to catch up in mere hours in order to report results on election night. Furthermore, a recent Supreme Court ruling requires Pennsylvania to accept mail ballots received up until November 6, so long as they have an election day postmark. Georgia and Colorado do not allow for this. Does this mean something is wrong or fraudulent? No, absolutely not. It simply means that Pennsylvania will require additional processing time because ballots will be coming in days after election day and currently, that state is not giving election officials the flexibility they need to process ballots quickly and efficiently in advance.

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Because most states (representing a majority of Americans) allow at least a week of ballot pre-processing, the idea that mail ballots are counted later than in-person ballots simply doesn’t hold true for most Americans. By allowing officials to count, or even just process, ballots prior to election day, states like Colorado and Georgia may very well be reporting their mail in ballot results minutes or hours after polls close and likely before in-person ballots have been tabulated.

Provisional ballots, on the other hand, are always the absolute last ballots to be counted. Many states require people who have requested an absentee ballot to vote a provisional ballot if they decide instead to vote in person (Check out this article to get more information on how states differ in allowing voting in person after requesting a by-mail ballot).

Election day may look a little different this year, with more voters casting their ballots from home than ever before. But that doesn’t mean the system can’t run as well or even better than ever. Sufficient processing timelines ensure that election officials can do their job to the best of their ability and that results are available in a timely fashion, so make a plan to vote and request your ballot if you can and haven’t done so!

Mail ballot statistics for this piece were retrieved from Michael McDonald’s U.S. Election Project on 10/23/20

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The National Vote at Home Institute is a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on expanding and implementing vote at home and mail options in all 50 states.

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