In 2020, President Donald Trump asserted that the lack of final election results on election night could be a sign of something nefarious and used this assertion to assert, without evidence, that the election was stolen: “We don’t want them to discover additional ballots at 4:00 a.m. and add them to the list,” he said.
In reality, however, election night results are always unofficial and incomplete. As more ballots are counted, they will undoubtedly shift.
Unlike in many other nations, U.S. elections are highly decentralized, complex, and feature lengthy lists of contests, ranging from the presidency and Congress to local measures and town council seats. Some states provide local election offices with several weeks prior to Election Day to process mailed ballots, including signature and ID verification. In other states, this process cannot begin until Election Day or shortly before, which means that these ballots may not be counted until the following day or even later.
Here’s why election results are not always known on election night.
Will the winners be known before we go to bed?
Particularly Republicans have cited perceived delays in receiving election results as a reason to question the legitimacy of elections.
What happens if a ballot is mismarked or damaged?
“We must reform our elections so that every Arizonan, whether they are Democrats, Independents, or Republicans, knows the winner on Election Night and feels confident that it was a fair election. We do not have that currently “Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor of Arizona endorsed by Donald Trump, stated on Twitter in August.
But not knowing the election’s winner on election night says nothing about the election’s fairness or accuracy. Under Arizona law, all ballots, including those that were sent, must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day; however, officials have 20 days to complete the vote tally.
In Nevada, counties have four days to tally late-arriving mailed ballots and voters have two more days to correct mailed ballots that come with errors or are missing information. This week, the elections commissioner for the county that encompasses Reno reminded voters of the extended schedule and stated that it is doubtful that final, official results will be available before November 18.
Jamie Rodriguez, the temporary registrar of voters for Washoe County, stated, “It will be more than a day after the election before we have definitive election results.”
Why are we not similar to France?
In May of last year, a close Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania prompted analogies to the French presidential election, which had taken place a few weeks prior.
Two days after the Pennsylvania primary, Trump questioned on social media why it was taking so long to determine the winner. Trump wrote, “France, same day, all paper, had VERIFIED numbers in the evening.” The United States is a laughingstock when it comes to elections.
In France, however, only one candidate was on the ballot. Presidential and legislative elections occur on separate days. In Pennsylvania, the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate was only one of many races being decided, including those for governor, attorney general, Congress, and state legislature.
Elections in the United States are also not nationalized, but rather controlled by states and managed by county or even township officials. In the United States, around 10,000 jurisdictions manage the voting process.
The French Ministry of the Interior delivers election materials, including ballots, during presidential elections, while local officials organize polling station staffing. The Constitutional Council of France adjudicates election-related complaints and releases election results.
Former Cook County, Illinois, elections clerk Noah Praetz stated that speedy results are conceivable, but the United States has “chosen to make voting open to everyone and let us vote on anything.” He emphasized that in the United States, ballots generally include dozens of offices, whereas in other nations, voters may simply choose a party whose leadership then occupies many of these positions.
In France, voters select candidates from party-affiliated lists of local candidates. The candidate list with the most votes will obtain the greatest number of seats in the city and regional councils.
Praetz stated, “This is a radically different perspective of democracy.”
In addition, French voters have the option of voting by proxy if they are unable to vote in person on Election Day. This is not permitted in the United States.
How do mail-in ballots impact the reporting of election results?
They could. Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, states were boosting the use of mail ballots and early in-person voting to lessen Election Day queues and provide voters with greater flexibility.
State-specific mail-in votes are subject to a variety of security procedures. Some need voter signatures or identification information to match their voter registration files, while others demand witnesses or notaries to verify a voter’s identity.
In the majority of states, including Florida and Georgia, the process of verifying mail-in ballots begins well before Election Day, which is a tremendous advantage for swiftly reporting results. In a few states that are political battlegrounds, this is not the case. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin officials are prohibited from beginning this job until Election Day, although Michigan officials are permitted to begin just two days beforehand. This means that the majority of results reported from these states on election night will be the result of Election Day and early voting.
Pennsylvania’s interim secretary of state, Leigh Chapman, stated that “vote counting and results reporting take time.” Election authorities prioritize precision over speed.
What additional factors can slow results?
While the majority of states demand that mail-in ballots be submitted on or by Election Day, 19 states offer a grace period as long as ballots were mailed by Election Day. In California, such ballots can be received up to seven days later.
If a considerable proportion of ballots arrive at local election offices after Election Day, it may be several days before voters learn the outcome of a close contest.
This can also alter outcomes over time. If Democratic voters predominate in mail voting but Republican voters predominate in in-person voting, this can result in early results significantly favoring a Republican candidate, whose advantage may erode as late-arriving mail ballots are counted.
Would counting by hand accelerate the process?
No. All ballots are typically counted by hand in tiny communities throughout the Northeast. Experts consider it to be more time-consuming and subject to human mistake in areas with numerous ballots. Hand tallies are employed in post-election assessments to confirm the accuracy of tabulator machines, but this is typically limited to a random sample of ballots and is performed without the need to swiftly publish results.
Republican groups and candidates have advocated for hand counts, mostly on the basis of conspiracy theories claiming that voting systems were manipulated to steal the 2020 election. There are no indications of widespread fraud or machine tampering.
In addition, hand counts would likely delay the release of findings by many days.
Cobb County, Georgia conducted a hand count after the 2020 election, as mandated by the law. It took hundreds of employees five days to count around 397,000 presidential ballots. Using the same processes, a county election officer calculated it would have taken 100 days to count every race on every ballot.