Why does it take so long to get final election results?

John Fortier
Conservative Opinion

John Fortier

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
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Years ago, most election results were available at the end of the night on Election Day, but these days it can take days, even weeks, to find out who won. It could be another day or two before we know which party will control the Senate and both parties are to blame. Republicans are opposed to processing early mail-in ballots before Election Day, even though that means a much larger backlog of votes to be counted after Election Day. Many Democrats, for their part, want to allow ballots postmarked as late as Election Day. In the state of Nevada, for example, counties have four days to count late-arriving mail-in ballots. But as Straight Arrow News contributor John Fortier explains, there are easy policy changes we can make if we want to find out election results sooner.

What’s the reason for the trend towards slower counting? The slower counting is related to the rise in voting by mail and provisional ballots. But more specifically, the slowdown occurs because many of these mail ballots are not ready to be counted on Election Day.

Ballots arriving close to Election Day, or in some states after Election Day, cannot be processed and counted at the same time as other ballots. How could we improve the speed and transparency of counting ballots? Both Republicans and Democrats cling to policies that delay the counting.

In 2020, Republicans often voiced opposition to early processing of mail ballots. When a mail ballot arrives, the envelope needs to be checked to ensure that the voter has provided all necessary information. Is the name on the envelope on the registration list? Has the voter provided the proper address? In some states, a signature or other identification is required. In some states, witnessed signatures and information are required. If there are problems with the information on the envelope, some states have a process by which the voter can be notified and be given the opportunity to fill in the correct information.

If at the end of this process, the voter has met all of the requirements, the ballot can be opened, and the ballot can be placed in a machine where the ballot can be tallied on Election Day. If a state does not allow any pre-processing of mail ballots, then come Election Day, there’ll be a large stack of ballots that might take days to process and ultimately count.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats often favor allowing ballots to be counted if they are put in the mail and postmarked by Election Day, with some states accepting ballots that arrive over a week after Election Day. In a majority of states, ballots are due by Election Day, but a large minority of states accept ballots postmarked by Election Day. The problem is obvious. Ballots that arrived days after the election cannot be processed or counted until much later. 

Some may say, “What is the harm in taking the time to get the count right?” But why leave Americans waiting and speculating about reasons for delay when a couple of policy fixes would allow for accurate, speedy and transparent counts of the vote?

 

On Election night, many Americans stay up late, eagerly awaiting results. But over the last 30 years, the counting of votes has slowed significantly. Policies advocated by both parties contribute to this delay. Speed and counting of the votes is not the only value we should care about. Of course, first and foremost, the count should be accurate. But there’s no reason that we can’t have an election system that provides accuracy, transparency and speed in producing the election results.

Thirty years ago, if the average American opened the newspaper two days after the election, they would have found unofficial election results that were nearly complete. The final certified results produced later did not differ very much from these initially reported results. But that situation has changed dramatically. 

Today, the percentage of votes unofficially reported two days after an election is much lower. In western states, where voting by mail is prevalent, up to 20% of votes are not reported in the first couple of days. In a few states, nearly 40% of votes are not reported in the first two days after the election. That means that voters may not know the winner of the election in a particular race for days or weeks even for races that are not very close or require a recount. In addition to this delay of initial results, in some states, the final certification of election does not occur for over a month after the election. 

What’s the reason for the trend towards slower counting? The slower counting is related to the rise in voting by mail and provisional ballots. But more specifically, the slowdown occurs because many of these mail ballots are not ready to be counted on Election Day. Ballots arriving close to Election Day, or in some states after Election Day cannot be processed and counted at the same time as other ballots. How could we improve the speed and transparency of counting ballots? Both Republicans and Democrats cling to policies that delay the counting. In 2020, Republicans often voiced opposition to early processing of mail ballots. When a mail ballot arrives, the envelope needs to be checked to ensure that the voter has provided all necessary information. Is the name on the envelope on the registration list? Has the voter provided the proper address? In some states, a signature or other identification is required. In some states witnessed signatures and information are required. If there are problems with the information on the envelope, some states have a process by which the voter can be notified and be given the opportunity to fill in the correct information. If at the end of this process, the voter has met all of the requirements, the ballot can be opened, and the ballot can be placed in a machine where the ballot can be tallied on Election Day. If a state does not allow any pre-processing of mail ballots, then come Election Day, there’ll be a large stack of ballots that might take days to process and ultimately count. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats often favor allowing ballots to be counted if they are put in the mail and postmarked by Election Day, with some states accepting ballots that arrive over a week after Election Day. In a majority of states, ballots are due by Election Day, but a large minority of states accept ballots postmarked by Election Day. The problem is obvious. Ballots that arrived days after the election cannot be processed or counted until much later. 

Some may say, “What is the harm in taking the time to get the count right?’ But why leave Americans waiting and speculating about reasons for delay when a couple of policy fixes would allow for accurate, speedy and transparent counts of the vote?

 


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