It’s election night. Voting was closed for hours. Why don’t Americans know the winners?
In 2020, President Donald Trump declared that the lack of final results on election night could be an indicator of something serious and used it without proof to be sure the election was stolen: “We don’t Want them to get more ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list,” he said.
However, the reality is that the results that are published on election night are not official and are always incomplete. They inevitably change as more ballots are counted.
Unlike many countries, elections in the United States are highly decentralized, complex, and feature a long slate of local measures for the president and congressmen and competitions for city council seats. Some states allow local election offices to process mail-in ballots several weeks before election day, including reviewing signatures and verifying identification information. In other states, the process may not begin until election day or shortly before that, meaning those ballots may not be counted the next day or even later.
This is why results are not always known on election night.
Should we know the winners before we sleep?
Republicans, in particular, point to perceived delays in results as a reason to distrust the integrity of the election.
“We have to reform our elections so that all Arizonans, whether they are Democrats, independents or Republicans, when they go to bed on election night they know who the winner is and they are satisfied that it was a fair election. We just don’t have that,” Kari Lake, the Trump-backed Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, tweeted in August.
Not knowing the winner on election night says nothing about the fairness of the election or the accuracy of the results. Under Arizona law, all ballots, including mailed ballots, must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day, but officials have 20 days to complete their counting.
In Nevada, counties have four days to count late-arriving mail-in ballots and two more days for voters to correct mail-in ballots that arrive with envelopes containing errors or missing information. Huh. This week, election officials in the county, which includes Reno, reminded voters of that extended deadline, saying that official and final results are not possible until the actual vote count on Nov.
“It will certainly take more than a day for the final results of the election to come out,” said Washoe County Interim Voter Registration Officer Jamie Rodriguez.
Why can’t we be like France?
A close primary race for the Senate in Pennsylvania last May drew comparisons with the French presidential election held a few weeks earlier.
Trump questioned in a social media post two days after the Pennsylvania primary why it was taking so long to find out the winner: “France, on all papers on the same day, had verified figures by night,” Trump wrote. “America is a laughing stock when it comes to elections.”
But in France there was only one contest on the ballot. Presidential and parliamentary elections are held on different dates. In Pennsylvania, the Republican Party’s primaries for the US Senate were one of several races, including races for governor, attorney general, Congress, and state legislature.
Elections in the United States are also not nationalized, but are instead overseen by the states and run by local authorities at the county or even township level. There are some 10,000 jurisdictions in the United States to oversee the electoral process.
For presidential elections in France, the Ministry of the Interior distributes election-related materials, including ballots, while local officials coordinate polling station staff. France also has a Constitutional Council that decides on election complaints and announces the results.
Noah Pretz, a former election clerk in Cook County, Illinois, said quick results are possible, but the United States has decided to “make voting accessible to all and allow us to vote on everything.” He noted that ballots in the United States usually include dozens of offices, unlike some countries where voters can only endorse the party whose leader then holds those many offices.
In France, voters usually choose from lists of local candidates belonging to a party. The candidate with the most support will receive the most city and regional council seats.
“It’s a fundamentally different vision of democracy,” Pretz said.
Also, voters in France can vote by proxy – nominating someone else to vote if they cannot cast their vote in person on Election Day – which is not allowed in the United States.
Do postal ballots affect the reporting of results?
They can do it. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, states were expanding the use of mail-in ballots and early in-person voting to reduce lines on Election Day and provide more flexibility for voters.
Mail-in ballots are subject to various security checks that vary from state to state. Some require a voter’s signature or identification information to check their registration files, while others require witnesses or notaries to ensure the voter’s identity.
In most states, including Florida and Georgia, the verification process for mail-in ballots begins long before election day, providing a huge advantage in reporting results quickly. Not so in some states which are political battlegrounds. Officials in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin can’t start that work until Election Day, while officials in Michigan can start just two days in advance. This means that most results reported from these states on election night will be from in-person polling on election day or during the early voting period.
“Counting votes and reporting results takes time,” said Leigh Chapman, acting secretary of state in Pennsylvania. “Election officials focus more on accuracy than speed.”
What other factors can delay the result?
While most states require mail ballots to be received on or before election day, 19 states offer a grace period, as long as the ballots are not sent after election day. In California, such ballots can be received up to seven days later.
If a large number of ballots arrive at local election offices after Election Day, voters may not know the result of a close race for several days.
It may also change the result over time. If Democratic voters dominate mail-in voting, while Republican voters vote primarily in person, this could mean that early results are in favor of the Republican candidate, who then sees that mail-in ballots are cast. As the count of lead fades. They come late.
Will a manual calculation help speed up the process?
No. The manual counting of all ballots takes place mainly in small towns in the North-East of the country. For venues with multiple ballots, experts agree that it takes longer and is more susceptible to human error. Manual recounts are used in post-election reviews to ensure the accuracy of tabulating machines, but this usually only includes a sample of ballots and is done without the pressure of reporting the results quickly.
Republican activists and candidates have pushed for manual recounts, largely based on conspiracy theories that the voting system was rigged to steal the 2020 election. There is no evidence of widespread fraud or machine tampering.
Also, reporting of results from manual calculations alone may take several days.
Georgia’s Cobb County underwent a state-mandated manual recalculation after the 2020 election. Counting the votes for the presidency took five days for hundreds of people to count the nearly 397,000 ballots. A county elections official estimated that it would take 100 days to count each contest on each ballot with the same procedures.