WASHINGTON — When the polls close, the wait begins — and you may want to get comfortable, because it could take a while before we know the winners and losers.
State election officials are reminding voters that it’s normal for it to take days or even weeks to know the outcome — it took five days for President Joe Biden to be declared the winner in 2020, and some races took even longer — but they say that’s the cost of making sure every vote is counted accurately in America’s highly decentralized elections.
“It takes time to accurately tabulate millions of ballots,” two groups that represent the country’s secretaries of state and election directors said in a joint statement Monday. “We implore voters and members of the media to allow election officials to do their work.”
The process is painstaking. To ensure security and avoid hacks, some jurisdictions require ballot boxes to be physically collected by truck or even helicopter, while others require poll workers to drive through the night with vote data on memory cards. It is also sometimes necessary to track down individual voters to make sure their votes are counted correctly.
Still, some races may be quick to call. And because Republicans need to net only five seats to win the House, that side of Congress might be decided faster than the Senate, where some key races could take days.
Here are some reasons we might be waiting:
Close races attract the most attention, but they also often take the longest to resolve.
When even a small number of votes can sway an outcome, public vote counters like NBC News’ Decision Desk may wait for nearly all ballots to be counted — which can take days — before they make a call. And polls show neck-and-neck races in most of this year’s key Senate races in states like Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
On the flip side, if the midterms end up being a Republican wave, key races will likely be quicker to call.
Mail ballots can take extra time to count, especially because lots of Americans are voting by mail.
Mail became the most common method of voting in 2020, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. And while many Americans are expected to return to their polling places this year, several states now conduct their elections mostly or entirely by mail.
The process takes longer because the ballots haven’t been pre-screened like in-person votes, which is how poll workers ensure voters are eligible and help them cast their votes.
The extra time it takes to count mail ballots was responsible for many of the conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, because Republican-leaning Election Day votes came in first, while Democratic-leaning mail ballots were added to tallies later.
Mail ballots may arrive at counting locations days or even weeks before, but most states don’t allow election workers to begin counting them before Election Day.
Several key battleground states, like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, now give ballot counters more time to prepare ballots for counting by doing things like removing them from envelopes and checking signatures. But those states’ Republican-controlled legislatures blocked efforts to allow actual counting to begin earlier, which officials say will slow the count.
Moreover, in especially close races, the outcomes may come down to ballots that haven’t even arrived yet.
As long as ballots are postmarked by Election Day, many states will still accept ones that arrive after polls close to ensure voters aren’t disenfranchised by delays at the post office.
For instance, Texas will count ballots that arrive the next day. North Carolina allows three days. Nevada allows four. California and New York allow seven. Ohio and Alaska will still count a ballot that arrives 10 days late.
Provisional ballots are typically the last votes to get counted. They are backup ballots used only if there are questions about voters’ eligibility.
Provisional ballots have almost never swung an election, but they can delay results, and they were a big part of why it took so long to know the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Provisional ballots are fallbacks for voters who, for instance, forget to bring ID in states that require it. Or voters who may have moved or changed their names and forgotten to re-register. They also help voters who were removed from the rolls because they hadn’t voted in a long time.
If you requested a mail ballot and then show up to vote in person, you may be asked to use a provisional ballot, so poll workers can make sure you don’t vote twice.
All of those issues take extra time to resolve.
Fortunately for anyone eager for results, provisional ballots were just one-eighth of 1% of ballots cast in 2020. But in a tight race, vote counters like NBC News’ Decision Desk may want to wait until those ballots get counted to get it right.
For instance, in 2020, Pennsylvania officials didn’t begin counting provisional ballots until four days after Election Day. There were about 85,000 provisional ballots in the state, which theoretically could have been enough for former President Donald Trump to overcome Biden’s roughly 19,000-vote lead at the time. NBC News and others were finally able to call the state for Biden the next day.
Recounts, re-canvasses and the courts
Twenty-two states have rules that trigger automatic recounts if an outcome is especially close, with the threshold often set at half of a percentage point. Almost all others allow losing candidates to request recounts, often at their own expense.
Some recounts can be quick. Some can be exceedingly slow, especially if they’re done by hand. The 2008 Senate race in Minnesota infamously took eight months to fully resolve as officials and partisan lawyers meticulously examined individual ballots.
Election officials may also re-canvass their results, a quicker process that involves repeating the work they did to reconcile and verify all their data. Many will also conduct post-election audits, which check statistically significant samples of votes to make sure there were no errors.
At this point, the courts also often get involved, which can even further delay the process.
Even if all the votes are counted quickly and without question, we still may not know which party controls the Senate thanks to Georgia.
If neither Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock nor Republican Herschel Walker surpasses the 50% threshold required to win by state law, the race will head to a runoff election in December. Polls suggest that is very possible with a Libertarian candidate polling at several percent of the vote.
Georgia may not prove consequential for overall control of the Senate, but it was in 2020, and it could be again, when the fate of Biden’s agenda may once again come down to an overtime election in the Peachtree State.