Why the last (and most crucial) votes are taking SO long to count

Why the deciding votes are taking SO long to count: Sluggish tallying of mail-ins, fixing ballots one-by-one, ink shortages and printer errors have drawn out the process for days as America and the world wait

  • Two days after the election, hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots remain uncounted across Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina
  • The tallying process has been sluggish due to an array of factors, including malfunctioning machines, printing errors, and a record number of mail-ins
  • Also adding to the delays is unprecedented pressure to make sure the results are right when they do come 
  • President Donald Trump on Thursday promised to mount legal battles in all battleground states won by his rival Joe Biden
  • Trump has repeatedly demanded to stop counting because of voter fraud 
  • Meanwhile Biden and the Democrats have urged Americans to be patient and insisted that every vote be counted
  • Election officials in the states still up for grabs are doing just that, making sure results are bulletproof in preparation for legal action by the Trump campaign 

As Americans sit on tenterhooks waiting for five key states to finally crown a victor in the presidential election, one question is on everyone’s minds: What is taking so long? 

Election officials in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina have pleaded for patience as they continue chipping away at mountains of hundreds of thousands of uncounted ballots.  

The paramount reason tallying has been sluggish is because of a record number of mail-in ballots, which take significantly more time to process than in-person ballots because they have to be verified and scanned via a system with multiple steps where things can, and have, gone awry.  

Voting centers around the US have reported issues with ink shortages, ballots printed on the wrong paper and faulty machinery – exacerbating an already arduous process. 

The states that still haven’t been called as of Thursday are facing yet another challenge: Unprecedented pressure to make sure the results are right when the margin is razor-thin. 

President Donald Trump on Thursday promised to mount legal battles in all battleground states won by his rival Joe Biden as he continued issuing fevered demands to stop counting in states that haven’t been called yet. 

Trump and Republicans have been waging a war against mail-in ballots for months, charging that they would lead to widespread voter fraud. 

Now that mail-in ballots have led to delays, Republicans are arguing that the counting process is stacked against them as well – even in states where their own party makes the rules.  

Meanwhile Biden and the Democrats have urged Americans to be patient and insisted that every vote be counted, especially since they expect the bulk of mail-in ballots to go in their favor.  

With the eyes of the nation blaring down at them, election officials in the states still up for grabs are doing just that, making sure results are bulletproof in preparation for legal action by the Trump campaign. 

Two days after the election, hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots remain uncounted across Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina – prompting many to question why it’s taking so long to reach a result. Pictured: Fulton County election workers examine ballots while vote counting at State Farm Arena on Thursday in Atlanta, Georgia


President Donald Trump on Thursday promised to mount legal battles in all battleground states won by his rival Joe Biden as he continued issuing fevered demands to stop counting in states that haven’t been called yet. Meanwhile Biden and the Democrats have urged Americans to be patient and insisted that every vote be counted, especially since they expect the bulk of mail-in ballots to go in their favor

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The states still counting as of Thursday afternoon:

  • Pennsylvania (20) – Trump is holding a narrow lead of just two points with 88 percent of expected votes counted. Results are expected on Friday at the earliest as an estimated 956,000 ballots have yet to be counted. 
  • Arizona (11) – Several top outlets have stopped short of declaring a win for Joe Biden as he holds a lead of just 2.35 percent with 88 percent of expected votes counted.  Results are expected on Friday at the earliest as about 450,000 ballots have yet to be counted.
  • Nevada (6) – Joe Biden is leading by just one point with 76 percent of expected votes counted. The timing of a reliable result is unclear as about 100,000 ballots have yet to be counted. 
  • Georgia (16) – Trump has razor-thin edge of 0.3 percent with 99 percent of expected votes counted. Results are expected by the end of the day Thursday as 48,000 ballots have yet to be counted.
  • North Carolina (15) – Trump is ahead by one percent with 94 percent of expected votes counted. Officials have said the count could continue into next week as at least 116,200 ballots have yet to be processed.   

Not knowing the winner of the presidential election two days after the polls closed is understandably unsettling for Americans, who are used to seeing a result the night of. 

But in fact the counting process has always taken several days or weeks, continuing well after media outlets project the winner based on partial counts. 

Each state has its own certification deadline to hand down an official count, ranging from two days after the election in Delaware to more than a month after in California.

Why mail-in ballots take so long to count

Experts have been predicting for months that counting votes would take much longer than in previous years because of an unprecedented number of voters sending ballots by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Absentee ballots are considerably more time-consuming to process than in-person ballots. 

When you vote in person, the ballot typically goes straight into the machine, where it is processed and counted almost immediately. 

There are a couple more steps with mail-in ballots. The first step is processing, which in most states sees an election worker verify the signature on the exterior of the envelope against voter roles. 

A worker then takes time to carefully open the envelope and flatten out the ballot before it can be scanned into a system – a simple yet lengthy process in large numbers – at which point it is counted.  

Technical snags and snafus in several jurisdictions across the US slowed the process further this week.

Absentee ballots are considerably more time-consuming to process than in-person ballots. Pictured: Mail-in ballots are processed, flattened and scanned by poll workers in the Philadelphia Convention Center in Pennsylvania on November 3

In Georgia, for example, a burst pipe caused delays in counting up to 60,000 absentee ballots in Fulton County, which includes part of Atlanta and leans Democrat. 

In another Georgia county, there was a corrupt memory card on one scanner which meant 400 had to be recounted. Officials in some counties are also using paper ballots for the first time in 20 years because they voted earlier this year that machine voting was not secretive enough.  

And in Wisconsin, absentee ballot results in and around Green Bay, a Democratic stronghold, were delayed after a vote-counting machines ran out of ink and a batch of more than 60,000 ballots had to be reprinted.

While some states were able to get ahead by counting mail-in votes as they came in over the past two months, officials in three Midwestern battlegrounds – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – were not allowed to begin counting mail-in votes until on or just before Election Day.  

Republican-led state legislatures in those three states had opposed changing laws to allow earlier preparations as other states did. 

States can predict how many mail-in ballots they will receive based on how many requests were made, however that does not account for people who changed their minds and voted in person instead or who failed to mail their ballots by November 3.

Where the count process stands

Pennsylvania

As of Thursday afternoon Pennsylvania has by far the most ballots left to count, with an estimated 956,000. 

The state, which has 20 electoral votes, is also continuing to accept ballots through 5pm Friday, as long as they were postmarked by Election Day. 

Republicans had challenged that late deadline prior to Election Day, but it remained in place after the US Supreme Court declined to take up the case. 

However, the justices have said they may reconsider the case afterward—meaning that any ballots received after Election Day could be tossed out, complicating matters further. 

Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar on Thursday said that election workers could finish tallying ‘the overwhelming majority’ of the uncounted ballots to have a clear winner by the end of the day.  

Boockvar has asked counties to separate any ballots arriving between 8pm on November 3 and 5pm on November 6 in preparation for a legal challenge from the Trump campaign. 

However, Boockvar told CNN that she believes post-Election Day ballot numbers will only have a marginal impact on the outcome. 

‘It’s not a huge number,’ she said. ‘So, I think, no matter what happens, I don’t think it’s going to be a tremendous impact on this race.’ 

The majority of the outstanding ballots in Pennsylvania are from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which tend to lean Democrat.    

Counting stopped then restarted in Philadelphia as Trump’s campaign sued claiming they are not being allowed to watch the count, winning their case first, then lost on appeal on Thursday. And in Pittsburgh, 35,000 votes cannot be legally counted until Friday. 

As of Thursday afternoon Pennsylvania has by far the most ballots left to count, with an estimated 956,000. Pictured: Monroe County municipal workers count ballots on Thursday in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania

People rally to demand that every vote be counted outside of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia on Thursday

Arizona

Arizona was expected to hand down a result on Thursday morning, before Secretary of State Katie Hobbs announced further delays. 

Hobbs said there are about 450,000 ballots waiting to be counted across the state, with the majority – 300,000 – coming from Maricopa County, where pro-Trump protesters stormed an election office on Wednesday night.  

Maricopa County added 62,000 votes to its tally on Thursday morning, putting Biden ahead by 68,400 votes, or less than three points. 

Like Maricopa County, the other counties with outstanding votes – Pima, Cococino and Santa Cruz – are considered Democratic areas.  

The AP and other outlets declared Biden the winner in Arizona on Tuesday night but the vote count is still being closely monitored. 

Meanwhile the Trump campaign has said it is confident about winning the state.  

Speaking on Thursday morning, Hobbs did not offer an estimate for how long it will be before an outcome is reached, but experts anticipate it could arrive by Friday.   

Arizona did not accept any mail-in ballots that arrived after Election Day. 

There are about 450,000 ballots waiting to be counted across the state of Arizona, with the majority – 300,000 – coming from Maricopa County, where pro-Trump protesters stormed an election office on Wednesday night (pictured)

Georgia 

Georgia currently has nearly 48,000 mail-in ballots waiting to be counted, according to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. 

The majority of the uncounted ballots – 17,000 – are in Chatham County, which includes Savannah.  

Georgia’s Voting System Implementation Manager Gabriel Sterling said on Thursday that the state is still working to determine how many provisional ballots have yet to be counted. He said he hoped they would have a number by the end of the day.  

‘Fast is great, and we appreciate fast,’ Sterling said. ‘We more appreciate accuracy.’

Asked why everything is taking so long, Sterling said there was nothing suspicious or strange about the process, but that elections were never normally so close so it doesn’t always have to come down to an official count.

Trump and the Georgia Republican Party have filed a lawsuit against election officials in Chatham County on Wednesday, asking a judge to order all late ballots be secured and accounted for.

It was filed after a Republican observer claims to have witnessed mail-in ballots which arrived after the 7pm deadline added to a pile of lawful votes to be counted.

Sean Pumphry, a registered GOP poll-watcher, said he saw 53 unprocessed ballots added to processed ones.

But Chatham County Judge James Bass dismissed Trump’s lawsuit on Thursday morning after county officials provided evidence to prove all ballots were legitimate and late ballots were not being accepted. 

Georgia currently has nearly 48,000 mail-in ballots waiting to be counted, according to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Pictured: Fulton County election workers examine ballots while vote counting at State Farm Arena on Thursday in Atlanta, Georgia

Trump supporters hold signs and flags during a protest on Thursday outside State Farm Arena where Fulton County Elections officials are counting ballots in Atlanta

Nevada

Nevada officials have estimated that around 100,000  have yet to be counted, although that number is shaky because the state mailed ballots to all active registered voters. 

The state, which has seen nearly half of its 1.2 million total votes come in by mail, will accept ballots through November 10.  

Updated results released on Thursday afternoon showed Biden’s lead has grown to nearly 12,000 votes, with 76 percent of expected votes counted. 

The majority of the outstanding votes are in Clark County, which is home to Las Vegas and more than 70 percent of the state’s voters. 

Clark County officials have said they hope to conclude counting by the end of the weekend.  

Washoe County, the state’s second largest county, had about 9,000 mail-in ballots waiting to be counted as of midday Thursday. 

The Trump campaign mounted a legal battle in Nevada on Thursday, claiming that ‘tens of thousands’ of people who voted in the state are no longer residents there.  

Nevada officials have estimated that around 100,000 have yet to be counted. Pictured: An election worker scans mail-in ballots at a tabulating area as an observer watches at the Clark County Election Department in Nevada on Thursday

North Carolina 

Like Pennsylvania and Nevada, North Carolina extended its deadline to accept ballots postmarked on Election Day until November 12. 

Election officials in the state, which saw a record 4.5 million absentee ballots cast ahead of Election Day, have said new results will likely not be released until next week, when the final ballots arrive. 

There are currently about 116,000 outstanding requested absentee ballots, officials said, however it’s unclear how many of those will actually be returned.  

‘With very few exceptions, North Carolina’s numbers are not going to move until November 12 or 13,’ State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said Wednesday.

Trump holds a one point lead in the state, with 94 percent of the expected vote in, according to the AP.   

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