En español | As you settle in to follow the election returns Tuesday night you may be wondering why you're seeing results from some states soon after the polls close but vote totals are coming in much slower in others.
That's because what many people don't realize is that every state has its own rules governing how votes are counted — and when. In some states the procedures and timing for tabulating ballots even vary from county to county.
During most elections this isn't a big deal and it's not unusual to have to wait until late into the night — or into the following days — for some states to report all their votes. But like much of life in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has made this election more complicated, mainly because millions and millions of voters have decided not to vote in person on Election Day. Instead, they are either mailing in their ballot or going to an early voting polling place to cast their ballot before Nov. 3.
As of Thursday, just five days before Election Day, 73.3 million votes have already been cast either in person through early voting or via ballots mailed or put in drop boxes across the country. That's 53 percent of the total votes cast in the 2016 presidential election.
Where does you ballot go?
What happens after you put your ballot in the drop box or send it to your board of elections via U.S. mail varies by state. But here are the steps virtually all election officials take:
1. Once your ballot is received, an election worker reviews it to make sure it is from a legitimately registered voter.
2. The official ballot is removed from the outer envelope and the envelope is set aside.
3. An election worker checks to make sure your signature matches the signature that the election board has on file — usually your signature when you registered to vote.
4. The most common reason a ballot is rejected is because the signatures don't match. In some states there's an option for election officials to “cure” a ballot. That means they can contact a voter and ask them to come to the office and verify who they are.
5. In some states an acceptable ballot is then scanned into a machine. Other states don't scan the ballots until Election Day.
6. On Election Day the scanned-in ballots are tallied and the vote totals are released.
"We're likely to have fairly complete results on election night in the many states where they can start processing and counting mail ballots early, such as Arizona, Florida and North Carolina,” says Larry Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. “Most importantly, people should understand that if election officials are doing their jobs, they will put accuracy ahead of speed. We all should want that."
Here's a look at how voting-counting varies from state to state. To find out the rules in your state, go to your state or local elections office.
What's counted first
In most states, early in-person votes and absentee/mailed-in ballots will be tallied and reported first. That's been the usual practice for many years. What's different this year is the sheer volume of those votes.
When mailed or dropped-off ballots can be opened and begin to be put into the election system also varies.
"Most states allow processing to begin as soon as the ballots come in,” says Amber McReynolds, founder of the National Vote at Home Institute and one of the authors of Colorado's vote-by-mail law. That means, McReynolds said, that in a key battleground states like Florida, the first results that election officials will release will likely be the millions of votes that Floridians have cast either during early voting or via absentee.
As of Thursday, 7.3 million votes had already been cast in Florida – 3.2 million from early in-person voting and 4.2 million absentee ballots returned. That represents 52.5 percent of the Sunshine State's registered voters.
Florida law allows mailed-in ballots to be opened and processed starting 22 days before Election Day. Who voted for whom isn't known until election night when these ballots are actually tallied by the machines, but the ballots are ready to be tallied so Americans could know fairly early on election night who Floridians chose for president.
Contrast that with several battleground states that experts say could be decisive in this election: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In all three of those states, election law says they cannot start opening mailed-in ballots until Election Day morning.
These states, McReynolds says, “have outdated laws that policymakers refuse to modernize. And that puts a big burden on election officials to get all that work done in a very short window of time."
For this election, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did sign a law allowing jurisdictions with at least 25,000 people to begin processing mailed ballots for 10 hours on Monday. But the state's chief election official has predicted that it will be at least the end of next week before all of Michigan's votes are counted.
Pennsylvania law also prohibits any ballots from being processed until Election Day. And as of Thursday, 2.1 million mailed-in ballots have been received by Keystone State election officials. That represents 70 percent of all the absentee ballots voters requested. Pennsylvania does not have in-person early voting.
"We've really been pushing the legislature and the governor to allow ballots to be opened before Election Day,” says William Johnson-Walsh, AARP's Pennsylvania state director. But Pennsylvania officials did not agree on changing the law and the legislature has adjourned for the year. That means, says Johnson-Walsh, “that we might not know for a couple of days who won in Pennsylvania because they are not going to be able to start processing millions of mail-in ballots until Election Day."
Votes counted after Election Day
As if when ballots get opened wasn't already complicated, 23 states and the District of Columbia allow ballots to be counted after Nov. 3, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day. When those ballots have to be received by election officials also varies by state. In some states those late ballots have to be received by the day after elections. Some states give those ballots a week or more to arrive in election offices.
When — and whether — to count those ballots has been the subject of court challenges in a number of states. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin cannot count ballots received past 8 p.m. on Election Day, even if they are postmarked on Election Day. But the high court refused to take cases in Pennsylvania and North Carolina asking that they overturn rulings by state courts that allow those states to count ballots postmarked on Election Day but received within three days in Pennsylvania and within nine days in North Carolina.
"In the majority of states, I just don't think that there's going to be this massive influx post Election Day,” McReynolds said. “Because we're seeing so many people return earlier."