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Why does it take so long to count the ballots?

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WASHINGTON — When the polls close, the wait begins — and you may want to get comfortable, because it may take a while before we know the winners and losers.

State election officials are reminding voters that it is normal for the results to take days or even weeks to be announced — President Joe Biden took five days to declare the winner in 2020, and some races took even longer — but they say this is the cost of making sure every vote is counted accurately in America’s highly decentralized elections.

“It takes time to accurately map millions of ballots,” two groups representing the country’s secretaries of state and election directors said in a joint statement Monday. “We implore voters and members of the media to let election officials do their job.”

The process is meticulous. To ensure security and prevent hacks, some jurisdictions require that ballot boxes be physically picked up by truck or even… helicopter, while others demand pollsters drive through the night with voting data on memory cards. Sometimes it is also necessary to track down individual voters to ensure that their votes are counted correctly.

Still, some races can be called fast. And because Republicans only need five seats to win the House, that side of Congress can be decided faster than the Senate, where some key races can take days.

Here are some reasons why we may be waiting:

Close margins

Close races attract the most attention, but often take the longest to resolve.

When even a small number of votes can affect an outcome, public vote counters like NBC News’ Decision Desk can wait for nearly all ballots to be counted — which can take days — before making a call. And polls show neck-and-neck races in most of this year’s major Senate races in states like Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

On the other hand, if the midterms eventually turn into a Republican wave, important races are likely to be called faster.

Ballot papers by post

Mail ballots can take extra time to count, especially since many Americans vote by mail.

Mail became the most common method: vote in 2020, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. And while many Americans are expected to return to their polls this year, different states now conduct most or all of their elections by post.

The process takes longer because the ballots are not pre-screened like in-person votes, which is how poll workers ensure voters qualify and help them cast their votes.

The extra time it takes to count the ballots in the mail has been responsible for many of the conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, as the votes came in first on Republican Election Day, while the Democrat-leaning ballots were added to the counts later. added.

Ballot papers can arrive at counting locations days or even weeks earlier, but most states don’t allow it election workers to count them before Election Day.

Several key states on the battlefield, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, are now giving polling stations more time to prepare ballots for counting by, for example, removing them from envelopes and checking signatures. But those states’ Republican-controlled lawmakers blocked efforts to start the actual counting earlier, prompting officials say will delay the count.

Plus, in particularly close races, the results can come down to ballots that haven’t even arrived yet.

As long as the ballots are stamped by election daymany states will still accept those arriving after the polls close to ensure voters are not disenfranchised by post office delays.

Texas, for example, counts ballots that arrive the next day. North Carolina allows three days. Nevada allows four. California and New York allow seven. Ohio and Alaska still count a ballot that arrives 10 days late.

Preliminary votes

Provisional ballots are usually the last votes to be counted. They are reserve ballots that are only used when there are questions about voter eligibility.

Preliminary votes almost never lead to an election, but they can delay results, and they were a big part of why it took so long to know the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Provisional ballots are fallbacks for voters who, for example, forget to bring their ID in states that require it. Or voters who may have moved or changed names and forgot to re-register. They also help voters who have been removed from the list because they had not voted in a long time.

If you have applied for a ballot by post and then come to vote in person, you may be asked to use a provisional ballot so polling station members can ensure that you do not vote twice.

All of these issues take extra time to resolve.

Luckily for everyone waiting for results, preliminary votes were just one eighth of 1% of votes cast in 2020. But in a tight race, vote counters like NBC News’ Decision Desk may want to wait for those ballots to be counted to get it right.

In 2020, for example, Pennsylvania officials didn’t start counting preliminary ballots until four days after Election Day. There were about 85,000 preliminary ballots in the state, which theoretically could have been enough for former President Donald Trump to overcome Biden’s lead of about 19,000 votes at the time. NBC News and others were finally able to call the state for Biden the next day.

Recounts, re-examinations and the courts

Twenty-two states have rules that lead to: automatic recounts when an outcome is particularly close, where the threshold is often set at half a percentage point. Nearly everyone else allows losing candidates to request recounts, often at their own expense.

Some recounts can be fast. Some can be extremely slow, especially if done by hand. The 2008 Minnesota Senate race infamously took eight months to fully resolve as officials and partisan lawyers scrutinized individual ballots.

Election officials can also: reexamine their results, a faster process that involves repeating the work they’ve done to reconcile and verify all their data. Many will also perform after the elections auditswho check statistically significant samples of votes to make sure there were no errors.

The courts often intervene at this point, which can further delay the process.

Georgia

Even if all the votes are counted quickly and without a doubt, we may still not know which party controls the Senate thanks to Georgia.

If neither Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock nor Republican Herschel Walker cross the 50% threshold required to win under state law, the race goes to a second election in Dec. Polls suggest this may very well be possible with a libertarian candidate getting several percent of the vote.

Georgia may not have an impact on overall control of the Senate, but it was in 2020, and it could be again, when the fate of Biden’s agenda once again boils down to an overtime election in Peachtree State.

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