E-Day Guide: Absentee Ballots and Election Night Results

Election day is all about ballot cast at the polling place, right?

 In fact, millions of absentee ballots will be arriving today at county elections offices. These ballots may have been delivered right on time by the postal service, or dropped off at a drop box, or hand carried into the local elections office.  

 In so called “postmark” states (Alaska, California, Illinois, Maryland, New York, North Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Utah), ballots need only be postmarked by November 8th (oddly enough, November 7th in Utah) and can arrive a few days to two weeks later. 

Finally, in a few states, such as Arizona,  Montana and California, you can even drop off your absentee ballot at the local polling place.  (Editor’s Note: If anyone knows a comprehensive list of these states, I’d appreciate a link.)

These late arriving ballots can easily make the difference in close races.  

In Multnomah County, OR, elections director Tim Scott estimates that anywhere from 110,000 to 150,000 ballots will arrive today–that’s more than 20% of the total registered voters in the county, so likely more than 30% of the final tally!  Statewide, assuming total turnout of 80%, nearly 500,000 ballots that will be making their way into county offices today. 

In Maricopa County, AZ, the second largest election jurisdiction in the country, over 100,000 ballots are typically dropped off on election day, according to Tammy Patrick of the Bipartisan Policy Center  who worked in Maricopa for a number of years. 

What happens to these absentee ballots?  Are they counted immediately or are they counted at the close of polls?  What about the absentee ballots that arrived prior to Election Day?  I’ve received a flurry of questions about this today.

The quick answer is that in most states, absentee ballots are processed as they arrive.  The ballots are scanned but not counted, and tallying doesn’t occur until Election Day (in some states, at the start of the business day, in some states, after the polls close.  The “scanning” vs.”tallying”  distinction is important–election officials can’t just walk into a room and glance at vote totals–because no totals exist.  Totals are only calculated when a particular form or report is created.  

This means that in most states, the first results will include absentee ballots that arrived prior to Election Day, but will almost certainly not include ballots that arrived on Election Day. 

The late arriving ballots will generally not even begin to be processed until Wednesday.  While this may frustrate politicians, their supporters, and Americans who want to see an announcement of the final results, the delay is necessary to assure the security and integrity of our elections system.

First, in many states, absentee ballots cannot be processed before the close of the polls because election officials have to check to make sure that no one has voted twice, once by absentee ballot and a second time at a polling place.  This is the kind of security measure that exists in the American election system and is often ignored by those making unsubstantiated charges of “rigging.” 

Next, the absentee ballots need to be processed.  This involves a multistep

  • Signatures need to be verified
  • Ballots need to be separated from the outside envelope
  • In some states, ballots need to be inspected (and potentially “remade”) so they can be read by the machines.

After all these steps are completed, the ballots can be scanned and the votes counted.

In most states, none of this will happen on election night, when election officials have already worked a very long and arduous day.  Election officials need their beauty sleep, just like the rest of us!  

And they’ll be working hard to provide full and accurate results for days and weeks after November 8th.