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The battleground states that might count election results the slowest

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/29/2020 Kate Rabinowitz

More than 1 million early votes have already been cast in the 2020 election, but in several battleground states, mail-in ballots will go virtually untouched until right before Election Day. This delay, which is dictated by state laws, could cause results to trickle in for some of the closest races nationwide.

The Bipartisan Policy Center recommends states allow processing of ballots to start at least seven days before the Election, on Oct. 27. Five states with competitive races for the presidency allow less time than that, with two — Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — not allowing ballots to be processed before Election Day.

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“That is highly problematic when you have more mail ballots,” says Amber McReynolds, chief executive of the National Vote At Home Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocating for and advising on how to conduct elections by mail. “Election results are going to be delayed significantly when there’s this influx of mail ballots."

Processing mail-in ballots takes more time than those cast in person. The ballot’s eligibility must be verified, which in some states involves matching the voter’s signature against what is on file, contacting the voter if there are ballot issues and giving them a chance to fix, or “cure,” mistakes so their vote counts. It can also include removing the ballot from its envelope, flattening it and preparing it for tabulation.

“It isn’t complicated, but it has many, many steps,” says Kathleen Hale, director of the graduate program in election administration at Auburn University.

How to vote in your state

Slow primary results earlier this year could be a preview of what’s to come. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the Democratic presidential primary was not called for more than six days. It took more than a week after the primary to count all the ballots.

Pivotal battleground states aren’t the only ones that delay processing. Key Senates races in Montana, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi could be affected, as well as many House races and downballot contests. Close Senate races in North Carolina, Georgia and Colorado may be called sooner, because ballots are allowed to be processed as soon as they are received.

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The speed by which states can count mail ballots after they are processed depends on state law and what equipment is available to officials. For some states and localities, counting is as quick as pressing a button. In Colorado, ballots can be scanned into the tabulating machine as part of processing. The count involves allowing the machine to summarize and report results. It is a longer process in other states, such as Idaho and Iowa, that do not allow ballots to be removed from their envelope before counting.

Results reported on election night are unofficial — they are typically not made official until weeks later when election officials certify them. This year, with more absentee ballots and many states accepting mail ballots past Election Day as long as they’re postmarked by then, unofficial election night results may not just be slower, but also less comprehensive.

For instance, Ohio will first report unofficial results based on ballots received by 7:30 p.m. Election Day, along with the number of outstanding absentee ballots. Results won’t be reported again until they’ve been certified, which can take three weeks or more. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has said results should be not be expected on election night but plans to report throughout “where we are in the counting process and how many more ballots we have to get through.”

So if the winner of the presidential contest is not declared on election night, that does not mean anything has gone wrong. President Trump, however, has argued that ballots should not be counted after Election Day as he has made unfounded claims about the validity of voting by mail.

“There is a risk to the legitimacy of the election in the days after the election when it’s not clear who won” says Matthew Weil, director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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A few states, including Maryland and Iowa, have allowed the processing and counting of ballots to start sooner after getting pressure from local election officials.

In states where election officials have not been granted additional time, it’s a question of resources, Hale says. “If you don’t change the time window, then you need to put more people and equipment into the mix.”

While a major coronavirus relief law earlier this year did allow funding for elections, that money can’t go toward general operating expenses, such as hiring more staff or renting more space, according to Hale. And local governments, which often play a major role in election funding, have seen substantial budget drops as a result of the pandemic.

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The pandemic also makes seemingly simple solutions, like adding more people, complicated. “In the time of covid-19, just throwing more people in the same amount of time: Number one, it’s hard to find more people; number two, space is also a limitation. So you end up having people closer together than we really should be,” says Chris Swope, a city clerk in Lansing, Mich.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks at the launch of a “40 Days of Early Voting” campaign in Detroit on Sept. 24. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News/AP) Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson speaks at the launch of a “40 Days of Early Voting” campaign in Detroit on Sept. 24. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News/AP)

On Election Day in Rochester Hills, Mich., the entire first floor of city hall will be used for ballot processing. Even with the additional space, processing so many ballots in so little time gives Tina Barton, city clerk for Rochester Hills, “serious concerns about [election workers'] safety, about their physical health.”

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“You’re asking them to do a task that has zero room for error. You’re telling them, by the way, you’re going to be sequestered. … Everybody has to surrender their phones,” Barton explains. “And by the way, here are these nice, unpadded folding chairs that we’re gonna ask you to sit in for the next 20 hours and do the same task over and over and do it without making a mistake.”

In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) is expected to sign a bill allowing clerks in larger jurisdictions to begin processing one day before the election. For many clerks, it’s not enough. “The 10 hours is helpful, but I’m not calling it a complete success” Swope says. “That one day is already very full for us.”

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