What To Expect When the Election Doesn’t End on Election Day

An old-fashioned ballot box overflowing with blue and red toned items, including: the Pennsylvania state constitution, a tweet from Sen. Ted Cruz, the Wisconsin statehouse, mail-in ballots with "ERROR" on them, regular ballots over a stack of folders, a USPS mail box and a woman counting ballots.

Two weeks ago, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted: “Why is it only Democrat blue cities that take ‘days’ to count their votes? The rest of the country manages to get it done on election night.” 

Unsurprisingly, Cruz’s statement is simply not true. Not only is this tweet inaccurate, Cruz is setting up something more nefarious — turning a routine process into a basis to cry “voter fraud.”

Why do some states confirm official results earlier than others?

As we wrote in 2020, long wait times for results are simply a manifestation of democracy at work. The results we see on TV before going to sleep on election night are, and always have been, unofficial results and media projections. It takes election workers days or weeks to count, canvass and certify results. A canvass includes the tabulating of ballots, double-checking total results and transmitting the outcome of that election from a local jurisdiction to the state. This typically takes place at the county level, with the exception of the six New England states where canvassing takes place at the town, precinct or polling place level.

It might take cities and larger jurisdictions more time to count ballots because well, there are  more ballots to count. The increased use in mail-in voting is another factor. Nineteen states will receive and count ballots mailed before Election Day, even if they return within a certain window afterwards. Because of its size, isolation and inconsistent mail service, Alaska counts all mail-in ballots that were postmarked by Election Day but received up to 10 days after Election Day. 

Partisan trends in voting methods can create the illusion that one party is doing better at different points on election night and beyond. Starting early in 2020 and in the two years since then, former President Donald Trump has launched unfounded attacks on mail-in voting, characterizing it as a tool for voter fraud. Recent polling reveals how these baseless claims have impacted Republican voters, with 55% of Republican respondents viewing mail-in voting as a major threat to democracy. Just look at the stats out of Pennsylvania, where 1.4 million Pennsylvanians have asked for mail-in ballots, yet over three times as many Democrats requested these ballots than Republicans. 

Additionally, some states preclude election officials from processing and/or counting ballots before the polls close on Election Day. “Processing” typically means removing mail-in ballots from outer envelopes, verifying signatures and preparing for tabulation. In 38 states, election officials can pre-process mail-in ballots before the election; nine states and Washington, D.C. permit election officials to pre-process ballots on Election Day, prior to the closing of polls. Maryland is the only state that prohibits the processing of mail-in ballots until 8 a.m. on the Wednesday following Election Day. This year, the Maryland State Board of Elections asked the court to suspend this law for the upcoming election and allow local boards to begin processing as early as Oct. 1. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Dan Cox, intervened in the lawsuit to prevent this rule change, but to no avail — and Maryland courts gave the boards permission to pre-process on an earlier schedule.

The actual tallying of votes on processed ballots has an even later timeline. Ten states permit the counting of votes to begin before Election Day and 23 states allow it to begin on Election Day before the polls close. But, in 16 states and Washington, D.C. election officials cannot start tallying results until after the polls close. In Pennsylvania, the target of Cruz’s tweet, state law restricts both the pre-processing and counting of ballots to begin on Election Day itself. “One thing that all county election officials in Pennsylvania agree with is the need for pre-canvassing when it comes to vote by mail ballots,” said Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman (D) during a recent press conference, noting that Election Day is “already a day where there’s a lot of stress and a lot of work going on.” 

It’s important to note that Michigan and Wisconsin follow a similar timeline as Pennsylvania for the processing of mail-in ballots. In contrast, Georgia’s results might be quicker this year because of new, pre-processing laws, but if a candidate fails to gain 50% of the votes, a runoff election will take place on Dec. 6. In Arizona, a new law that lowers the threshold to automatically trigger a recount at the county level means that we could see more recounts this year. Nevada permits the pre-processing and counting of ballots before Election Day; historically, results are confirmed relatively swiftly in the Silver State. However, a new phenomenon of rogue counties switching to slower, less accurate hand counting methods could create new issues.

A handful of counties wanted to expand hand count procedures that could have prolonged the certification process. 

Experts agree that hand counting is less accurate, more expensive and more time consuming than electronic tabulation. It plays a legitimate, limited role in post-election audits but electronic ballot tabulators — which function in a similar way as machines that score standardized tests — have modernized our elections. Without electronic tabulators, it would take weeks or months to confirm the results in all the races. 

Since 2020, conspiracy theories about voting machines have run rampant. This misinformation has pushed several counties to consider or adopt expanded hand counting procedures. Local officials in Nye County, Nevada and Cochise County, Arizona have been at the center of a legal tug of war over moves to hand count ballots in potential violation of state law. Short of court intervention, such expansive hand counts could potentially delay the certification of local official results, and consequently, statewide results. 

The “Election Day only” rhetoric around vote counting is dangerous.

Before the 2020 election, Trump advisor Roger Stone stated: “I really do suspect that [the election result] will be up in the air. When that happens, the key thing to do is claim victory.” Tom Fitton, who runs the conservative legal group Judicial Watch, sent a memo to White House aides on Oct. 31, 2020 — four days before Election Day — claiming victory for Trump based on ballots counted by “the Election Day deadline” (there is no such thing; this is a made-up phrase).

This strategy was a part of Trump’s premeditated plan to undermine the 2020 election results and falsely claim victory. But, this dangerous rhetoric hasn’t gone away and is reappearing as we near Election Day in 2022. While election officials are trying to manage voter expectations about realistic counting timelines, Cruz and other powerful Republican officials are indulging in the false narrative that, somehow, counting every ballot — the very pinnacle of democracy — is fraudulent and wrong.