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Why the United States counts ballots so slowly

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It takes a long time to count ballots in US elections. Additionally, the speed at which votes are counted varies from state to state and county to county, as different jurisdictions use different methods to arrive at a final tally.

This is all standard operating procedure and by itself is not even a slight indication of impropriety, let alone fraud.

Why this is the case is less well understood. The United States is exceptionally slow to confirm winners; Brazil’s recent presidential run-off election had a full vote tally available hours after polls closed. In the United States, on the other hand, no state will have a final count on Tuesday evening. Some states will have large fractions of their overall totals unavailable for days and won’t be able to hold close races for a week or two.

Much of the slow count is a function of the basic structure of US elections. American voters typically encounter lengthy ballots featuring school board elections for the United States Senate. In many other countries, voters may only see one item on the ballot – usually local candidates vying for a seat in parliament, although there are many variations. The United States simply holds far more elections for far more positions than most other democracies.

On Tuesday, every state will hold US House elections, about two-thirds will hold US Senate elections,(1) most will hold state legislative elections with many voters choosing representatives in two houses; 36 have gubernatorial elections with at least half a dozen statewide executive positions up for grabs; and then there are all kinds of local offices, state and local judicial elections, and state and local ballot measures, all depending on the state, county, city, and other government bodies. Some voters may only have a dozen contests; others may encounter more than 50.

This makes the tabulation of ballots quite a complex operation. Machines can do this quickly, but machines are expensive, so in some cases ballots have to be transferred from the polling station to the machines. It takes time, especially since those ballots have to be carefully secured in order to, yes, prevent any possibility of fun deals.

The United States also has an unusually decentralized electoral administration. Decentralization means that each state and even each county (or whatever authority is responsible) must choose how much to spend on expedited ballot counting when there are competing priorities within the election administration, without talk about all the other things that states and local governments do. It’s no surprise that as a result, some are faster and some are slower.(2)

Some people who have latched onto false claims of voter fraud from 2020 point to automatic counting as a problem. In reality, machines are more accurate than humans when it comes to counting. Long US polls also make counting by hand impractical; a recent attempt to do so in a Nevada county ended in a court-stopped fiasco.

That’s not all. A mix of ballot types and voting arrangements creates the potential for additional delays as election officials process early in-person, mail-in, and other absentee ballots as well as ballots cast on Election Day . Federal law requires that certain ballots from overseas active duty troops and their families be accepted even if they arrive after Election Day. Some states accept mail-in ballots that are postmarked before Election Day, which means they may be received several days later.

Even on election day, the use of drop boxes in some locations means that someone has to physically collect the ballots and, depending on the methods used, separate them into the correct precincts, because voters who live in different areas and use different ballots sometimes use the same drop box. All absentee ballots take time to process, from physically removing the ballot from the envelope to verifying compliance with anti-fraud protocols (such as signature matches). Votes received in advance could be processed and even counted when received, but some states – most notoriously Pennsylvania – do not allow this. Then the count continues.(3)

All of these steps involve trade-offs. The count is faster if mail-in ballots are due to arrive on Election Day – but fewer people would vote, and presumably more of them would vote as the campaign continued and before any late developments. The count would be even faster if mail-in voting was scrapped and mail-in ballots strictly limited, but that too would make it harder for many to vote.

The bottom line is that the vote count will be predictably slow, at least for those familiar with how different states do things. This is, for better or worse, how the system is set up. So prepare to be patient. And prepare to ignore those who use the delays to try to undermine confidence in the election.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Party etiquette matters most to voters: David A. Hopkins

• Political change is coming slowly to Pennsylvania: Francis Wilkinson

• Republicans Can Save American Democracy: Jonathan Bernstein

(1) Oklahoma has two Senate seats to fill.

(2) It is not uncommon for urban areas to count more slowly because they often have more ballots to count without proportionally greater resources devoted to counting them. Some Republicans have used those slow counts as evidence of fraud, saying those areas with lots of Democratic votes are holding back until they see how many votes are needed. But cities have the same custody of ballots as all other regions, and there’s no evidence of anything wrong; more obviously, the many close elections the Democrats have lost despite late towns (including, notably, the 2016 presidential election) make it clear that the accusations have no merit.

(3) Mail-in ballots arriving at different times largely explain the effect seen in many states in which Democrats win as the count goes on. Why? Because older voters, who are currently Republican-leaning, tend to vote as soon as their ballots arrive in October (or even September in some states) while younger voters, who tend to be Democratic, are more likely to vote at the last minute. (And it is no coincidence that the groups with high participation are also the first groups to vote).

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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