US Elections: How long will vote counting take?

US Elections: How long will vote counting take? Estimates, deadlines in all 50 states

The increase in vote-by-mail due to Covid-19 is expected to push back the release of full results in many key states

Mail-in ballots are processed and counted for the upcoming presidential election in Denver, Colorado, US. Credit: Reuters Photo

Although many winners may quickly be evident on election night, the increase in vote-by-mail because of the pandemic is expected to push back the release of full results in many key states.

The New York Times asked officials in every state and the District of Columbia about their reporting processes and what share of votes they expect to be counted by noon Wednesday, the day after Election Day. There is a fair amount of uncertainty surrounding results in any election, but here’s what they said to expect:

Many states will not have complete results on election night.

Even once the early and in-person ballots are counted, a significant number of votes could still be outstanding. Only eight states expect to have at least 98 per cent of unofficial results reported by noon the day after the election. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia allow postmarked ballots to arrive after Election Day, so the timing will depend on when voters return them.

New York and Alaska will not report any mail votes on election night. (Rhode Island had also planned not to report mail votes that night, but its election board voted Monday to begin releasing them at 11 p.m.) Officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania, two key battleground states, have said full official counts could take several days.

The increase in mail voting could also lead to more provisional votes, increasing the number of ballots counted later. In many states, voters who have their eligibility questioned at the polls may cast a provisional ballot, which is set aside and counted only when eligibility is later confirmed.

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Usually the number of provisional votes is not large enough to be significant, but there is evidence from early voting that this election may be different. Some voters in at least 22 states are required to vote provisionally if they initially request a mail ballot but decide to vote in person instead (other states have different methods to prevent voting twice). Provisional voting can slow down lines at the polls, and those ballots are generally the last to be reviewed and counted.

Results are never official until final certification, which occurs in each state in the weeks following the election.

Results at the beginning and at the end of the night may be skewed.

The order in which different types of votes are reported could also make one party look stronger at various points in the night. Democrats are more likely to vote by mail this year, so in states where those will be the first type of ballots released, like Arizona, Florida and North Carolina, initial results could skew in favor of Joe Biden. Places that report in-person Election Day votes first, like most parts of Virginia, will probably look better for President Donald Trump.

But the initial skew in a state’s results may last only a short while, and it will be influenced by which counties or precincts in the state are the fastest to report, said Charles Stewart III, an elections expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To be a sophisticated consumer of the returns, Stewart said, pay attention to key counties once they have reported most of their results. “Whether that county is more Trump-y or less Trump-y than 2016 is going to be very informative of the way the election is going,” he said.

After election night, there could also be misleadingly positive results for Trump in certain states, with mail ballots trickling in over the following days favoring Biden.