Compared with previous elections, increases in mail voting and provisional ballots might mean we have to wait longer to know the final results.
Americans are voting by mail in record numbers this year due to the pandemic. In 2016, roughly 23.6% of ballots were cast through the mail. In 2020, it’s possible that the rate of mail voting could reach 50% or higher. Absentee voting and vote by mail are safe and reliable voting methods that date back to as early as the Civil War.
Counting mail ballots takes additional time and resources. While the eligibility of in-person voters can be verified at the polls and their ballots can be counted in real time, mail ballots require additional layers of processing, verification, and tabulation that are both time and resource intensive.
The handful of states that have been voting entirely or mostly by mail for years—like Oregon, Colorado, and Washington—have automated and streamlined the ballot verification and counting process. However, many states and localities this year have had to rapidly expand their vote by mail operations in order to keep voters and poll workers safe. And while automation can help speed up the process, it requires expensive machinery that most states have neither the money to purchase on a short timeline nor the need for under normal circumstances.
States that don’t allow the preprocessing of absentee ballots or lack the necessary tools for automation will see delays in the reporting of unofficial results as absentee ballots are verified and counted in the days following Election Day.
In addition, we are expecting to see an increase in provisional ballots cast this year, which are typically counted last, after mail-in ballots. Provisional ballots provide a backup option for voters whose eligibility is uncertain when they arrive at the polls. Provisional ballots help ensure all eligible voters can vote by allowing election officials to verify eligibility after the fact. Because of these additional steps, processing provisional ballots takes time.
The additional time required to process absentee and provisional ballots this year may result in a gap between Election Day and the determination of a winner. Importantly, this gap does not indicate widespread fraud or administrative failure. Rather, it reflects a vote-counting process that is thorough, secure, and responsive to shifting voter needs in this challenging time.