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When do they start counting votes in the 2020 election? Ballot time lines hinge on state rules

Each state has its own rules about processing ballots versus counting ballots. Here’s what to expect for the 2020 election.

When do they start counting votes in the 2020 election? Ballot time lines hinge on state rules
A Clark County election worker scans mail-in ballots at the Clark County Election Department on October 20, 2020, in North Las Vegas. [Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images]
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A record number of election ballots are pouring into election centers nationwide, and some votes are already being counted. And millions more are sitting in giant bins doing nothing. Here are a few things to know about the U.S. election process in the age of coronavirus:

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What is ‘processing’?

Before a vote is counted, the voter’s signature needs to be confirmed, and the ballot needs to be removed from its envelope and organized for counting. Not doing so is like opening the toothpaste tube before you put it on your toothbrush. Pivotal.

So who’s processing already?

As The New York Times reports, 22 states allow ballots to be processed upon receipt. They are Arizona; Georgia; Minnesota; Nevada; Arkansas; Colorado; Washington, D.C.; Hawaii; Idaho; Illinois; Indiana; Kansas; Massachusetts; Montana; Nebraska; New Jersey; New York; South Dakota; Tennessee; Utah; Virginia; and Washington.

So these states will start counting early?

No! Not necessarily. See, states go their own way on this. Each state has its own rules about “processing” versus “counting.” For example, Arizona is already processing and counting, so we will likely know Arizona’s estimated vote counts early. Georgia, meanwhile, has been processing for over a month but won’t start counting until November 3.

What’s one state’s weird rule?

In Wisconsin, ballots cannot be opened until Election Day—but voters can be contacted about errors in their signatures and addresses on the outsides of the envelopes, and correct them.

What does my state do?

Google “[your state] ballot counting and processing” to find the rules. You might also try this list on Ballotpedia.

Does this mean we’ll know election results early?

Final tabulations may be sloooooow, particularly for smaller races, because many states allow ballots postmarked November 4, which may not even arrive at counting facilities until November 6 or 7, let alone be processed and counted.