Part 1: Why Some States’ Election Results Will Take Longer than Others

Most states will report results on time, but a few are likely to experience delays — which means the process is working

You might’ve heard that election results will take longer this year. That’s right, but by how much will vary from state to state and depend on a few different factors. Ballots voters receive by mail have to go through processing before they can be counted. States that do pre-processing of ballots will generally have quicker results after the election. In fact, in states with pre-processing, mail-in ballots are often counted and reported first. Provisional ballots, which are often used when a voter requests a mail ballot but votes in person as well as in other circumstances, are also a primary cause of lengthy processing and counting procedures.

What is processing?

Before mail ballots can be counted, they must be processed. Processing generally entails checking to confirm it was filled out by the correct voter and removing a ballot from its envelope. How laborious processing is depends on the jurisdiction and the type of equipment it has to complete the task. While opening an envelope and checking a signature might not seem like a lot, multiply those steps by a few million and you’ve got quite the job!

That’s why many states choose to begin to verify signatures and process mail ballots before election day. By starting these steps early, it not only dramatically reduces the amount of time it takes to count ballots after the election, but also gives voters more time to correct any issues with their ballots.

Signature Verification versus Processing

The first step for most states once a ballot is received is to verify the signature on the envelope the ballot came in. In all states, voters have to sign a statement that comes with the ballot certifying that they are who they say they are. To further certify, in some states, they check that a ballot has been notarized and signed by witnesses. In others, this means checking the signature on the ballot with the signature in the state’s database (usually the signature from a voter registration application or a driver’s license).

While this occurs at the same time as processing nearly everywhere, 8 states begin verifying signatures before processing. Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Minnesota, Georgia, and New Jersey allow signatures to be verified upon receipt, and New Hampshire and Iowa allow signatures to be verified a few days prior to full processing.

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The National Vote at Home Institute recommends that states begin processing ballots at least 7 days before election day. Doing this allows election officials to “flatten the curve” so to speak and spread out the processing of ballots so that there is not an unmanageable number of ballots to process all at once on election day. A surge of ballots is more likely to overwhelm the system and cause delays in getting results. Ideally states would begin processing ballots upon receipt, as is the case in Hawaii, Nevada, Washington, Colorado, Utah, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, New York, Massachusetts and Hawaii.

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In many states that preprocess ballots, counting doesn’t happen until election day itself. However, having completed processing already drastically reduces the time needed for ballot counting. If you’re in a state that doesn’t start processing ballots until election day, your ballot may be counted days after the election. While some states even allow ballots to be counted prior to election day (of course, these results remain confidential until the close of polls), the plurality do not start until the morning of election day.

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These maps reveal a real variety in processing and counting timelines across the county. Colorado, for example, processes ballots as soon as they are received by the county elections office and allows officials to start counting mail ballots more than two weeks before election day. Other states are moving toward this timeline such as Georgia, which starts verifying signatures on ballot materials as soon as they are received, and processes them fully 15 days before the election. This way, when election officials start counting on Election Day (as is the law in Georgia), the mail ballots are ready to go.

Some states, however, still don’t start processing until election day. Pennsylvania begins processing ballots on Election Day morning and for an election that has seen unprecedented levels of mail ballot requests, this is expected to cause large delays in counting.

If mail ballots are being processed before election day, why might results still take longer than usual?

Provisional ballots take the longest to process and count. In 23 states, if you’ve requested an absentee ballot and decide to vote in person instead, you must vote a provisional ballot (Note: in some circumstances, usually by surrendering your mail ballot, you can vote a normal ballot in a few of these 23 states. Check out this article to get more information on how states differ in allowing voting in person after requesting a by-mail ballot..

Regardless of whether your state pre-processes ballots or not, voting is a right of all Americans. Check with your local election officials for the most up to date and accurate information about when and where to return your ballot. You can find information on your local election at canivote.org!

Written by

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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