Due to an anticipated record amount of mail-in voting this election season, combined with ballot counts that won’t start until Election Day in most states, election officials across the country could be overwhelmed in some cases.
Deadlines for receiving mail-in ballots also extend past Nov. 3 in several states, all but making it a given that votes will be recorded in the days or even weeks after the election.
The issue of mail-in ballot receipt deadlines is also fraught with legal challenges — some of which are still playing out in court with less than two weeks to go until the general election. And President Donald Trump has repeatedly attempted to sow doubt on mail-in voting through false and conspiratorial claims about voter fraud.
Despite these new complexities, experts are confident voters’ ballots will be counted this election season.
“There’s every reason voters … should be able to vote with confidence,” Michael Waldman, president of the nonpartisan law and policy institute Brennan Center for Justice, told “Good Morning America.” “Their vote will be counted. It’s a pretty clean and a pretty efficient system.”
While some absentee ballots are ultimately rejected, it remains a very small percentage of the overall vote. In the 2016 general election, under 1% of absentee ballots were rejected, according to the Election Assistance Commission. In many states, voters can track the status of their absentee ballot online, and there also are processes to contest or cure absentee ballots that are initially rejected.
The exact procedures for counting ballots vary by state — and sometimes even by county. But here’s a general look at what it takes to tally up the votes of millions of citizens:
The process of processing ballots
With voting already underway in all 50 states, almost all of them are able to start processing absentee ballots ahead of time in the days or weeks leading up to Nov. 3 under state law.
Processing absentee ballots generally includes steps short of tabulating them — such as removing them from the envelope, confirming voter eligibility, matching signatures to what’s on record and scanning them.
Some states have changed their processing rules due to the pandemic, allowing for earlier processing starts to accommodate the increased volume of absentee ballots. For instance, the battleground state of Michigan can begin processing the day before Election Day in cities with a population over 25,000 this year, instead of the day of.
A majority of states won’t start actually counting ballots until the morning of Election Day or after polls close. Most counting rules have remained unchanged this year, though some states have adjusted their timelines due to the pandemic to ease the burden of increased absentee ballots. For instance, the battleground state of Pennsylvania passed a law this past spring allowing clerks to start counting ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day, rather than waiting until after the polls close.
Reporting contest results does not begin in most states until polls close, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
With at least half the votes expected to be cast by mail, “it may take days, if not weeks, to count an expected record number of mail-in votes,” the Brennan Center said in a recent report.
Even in a state like Florida, which can count mail-in ballots as early as 22 days before Election Day, election officials expect to be tabulating ballots after Nov. 3 due to the “time-consuming task of processing tens of thousands of ballots after 7 p.m. on Election Night,” the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections told the Tampa Bay Times.
Since mail ballots take longer to count, that could make election night more like election week, Poynter noted.
To that end, voters may need to have “a little bit of patience” this year, Waldman told “Good Morning America.” All accepted absentee ballots are ultimately counted for every election.
“If it takes a little longer this year, it’s not because it’s chaos or misconduct, it’s just how we know people are being careful and counting carefully,” he said.
Find your state’s policy: The National Conference of State Legislatures has state-by-state breakdowns of mail-in voting policies in effect for the 2020 general election, including when ballot processing and counting begins. The National Association of Secretaries of State also has a guide to deadlines for early and absentee voting. Since there could still be changes leading up to the election, it is recommended that you also check with your state election board’s website for the latest information.
Changes — and challenges — to mail-in ballot deadlines
The last day to vote in-person in the general election is Nov. 3. Absentee and mail-in ballots also typically must be received or postmarked by that date, if not earlier, depending on a state’s rules. That leaves some room for mail-in ballots to be received after Election Day. In Washington State, mail-in ballots received as late as Nov. 23 are still valid, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3.
Changes to election policies this year due to the coronavirus pandemic include extended deadlines to receive ballots in some states, including Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where just this week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn a state court ruling that absentee ballots should be counted as long as they are received by Nov. 6. A new federal civil rights lawsuit seeks to challenge that deadline.
In North Carolina this week, the Court of Appeals ruled that votes postmarked by 5 p.m. on Election Day could be accepted up to Nov. 12.
Wisconsin has faced similar challenges to a deadline extension. After a series of dueling court rulings over whether absentee ballots that arrive after Nov. 3 can count, an appeals court last week reinstated Wisconsin’s usual rule that all ballots must be received by Election Day.
Similar extensions were also overturned in Indiana and Michigan.
Cases in North Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia and Alabama regarding deadline extensions could still make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Walden told “Good Morning America” that the lawsuits can be confusing, but that these issues will be resolved by Election Day. Though Kate Shaw, a Cardozo law professor and legal consultant for ABC News, said that there could be renewed legal challenges if the count is close in battleground states after Nov. 3.
Find your state’s policy: FiveThirtyEight has a state-by-state voting guide that includes mail ballot deadlines. The U.S. Vote Foundation also lets you search for your state’s absentee ballot return deadlines. And again, it is recommended that you also check with your state election board’s website for the most up-to-date information.
Certifying the results
Once ballots are collected, they are counted and verified, then made official, through processes typically referred to as canvassing and certification, according to Ballotpedia.
States also have set deadlines by which they must canvass and then certify election results — and those can vary widely depending on where you live.
According to Ballotpedia, citing state laws, six states must certify election results within a week of the general election; 26 states and Washington, D.C., have a deadline between Nov. 10 and Nov. 30; 14 have a deadline in December, and four do not have deadlines in their state laws.
Among key battleground states, those deadlines range from Nov. 11 (Pennsylvania) to Dec. 1 (Nevada and Wisconsin). For potential battleground Texas, it is Dec. 3.
The last day for states to resolve contested election results — what’s known as the “safe harbor” deadline — is Dec. 8, with the Electoral College set to meet in each state on Dec. 14 to formally cast their votes for the president.
Find your state’s policy: See your state’s certification deadline here.