Why does it take so long to count votes?

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I’m not an expert on elections in the USA, but am I the only one to be puzzled about the length of time it is taking to count the votes?

I have been seriously drawn into this election, staying up for a silly length of time watching CNN, which does seem to give the clearest coverage. I do appreciate that each state sets up its local voting arrangements, and that this privilege is enshrined in the Constitution. As a result, states vary enormously in how efficient they are at counting ballots.

The rules about mail-in/absentee/postal voting vary, so that in some states (and crucially in most of the swing states) they are only opened after the in-person votes are counted.

In the UK, postal votes are opened and verified in batches as they arrive at the Council, then locked away securely. Verification involves checking that the ballot paper is a genuine one and that the signature matches the one given on the application form. At the count, after the polls close, the ballot papers from the polling stations are verified by being counted and the total checked against the numbers of electors recorded at each polling station. But once the postal and non-postal ballots have been verified they are all mixed together, so that each counting officer is given a random collection of ballot papers to sort into baskets labelled with the candidates’ names. (Apologies to you activists who know all this already…)

Postal ballots must reach the Council before polling day, or can be handed in at a polling station on the day. Unlike the situation in some states in the US, postal votes that arrive late in the UK are not counted.

Having attended many election counts in the UK, some as a candidate, some as a counting agent, I can see how labour intensive the process is. In spite of that, most of our counts finish overnight, only occasionally spilling over into the next day, even though polling goes on until 10pm. So, apart from the necessary delay in dealing with late arriving mail-in votes where they are allowed, why are the American ones taking so long?

One of the factors must be the complexity of the ballot paper. In parallel with the Presidential race, elections are going on for a third of the seats in the Senate and all seats in the House of Representatives. Some State Governors are being elected alongside mayors and local seats. And some states are using the occasion to hold referendums as well. But why should they all be on the same sheet of paper?

In London next year in May we will be voting for the Mayor of London, the constituency London Assembly members, and the London top-up list, alongside a raft of by-elections that have been held up by the pandemic. Each will have its own separate ballot paper, usually colour coded. Similar multiple elections will be taking place across the UK, including those for the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd, some unitary authorities, plus some elected Mayors and Police Commissioners. Do we expect the counting to continue for many days, even weeks? Of course not.

Returning Officers across the country know exactly how many counting staff they need to employ in order to get through the task in a reasonable length of time. Of course, recounts take time, but they are the exception. Why can’t their US equivalents do the math (as they say) and employ enough staff in the counties to get through the top-line ballots, at least, within 24 hours?

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Richard Underhill 6th Nov '20 - 3:12pm

    In euro-elections we voted on Thursdays, turned the papers upside down and counted at the weekend for religious reasons.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Nov '20 - 3:17pm

    Catty said that it depends on whether it is mathematically possible for the other candidate to win.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Nov '20 - 3:27pm
  • Nick Barlow 6th Nov ’20 – 2:39pm…….Imagine how long one of our counts would take if verification and opening of postal votes couldn’t take place until polls close, then you’ll see why they’re taking so long…….

    At least that might prevent political commentators from ‘leaking’ how badly one party is doing…

  • Nick Barlow – Yes, I can see that opening and verifying postal votes after the others have been counted would add in delay, but it still seems exceptionally lengthy. If that rule applied here it might add another 7 or 8 hours to a count, not 3 or 4 days. Or maybe I am being optimistic?
    The political trick was, of course, really disturbing but only worked because Trump persuaded his voters that postal votes were dodgy and they needed to vote in person. Now that the fiction has been exposed I hope the country regains its sanity next time round.

  • Regarding counting votes…It descended into ‘Wonderland’ territory with Trump supporters in Pennsylvania demanding, “Stop the count!” and Trump supporters in Arizona demanding “Count every vote!”,,

  • Election officials knew in advance that they would be challenged to a ridiculous degree by Mr Trump. So they were under pressure to do a belt and braces job.

  • There are multiple elections taking place at the same time.
    President, Senate, House of Representatives, State Governors and probably several other State offices.

  • Imagine you are a Secretary of State in one of the remaining states to be delcared.

    Do you really want to be the one that puts Biden over the top? And then have the media and lawyers descending on you and examining every last aspect of your count, like bees to a honey pot.

    Or would you prefer to give that honour to another state or states?

    In Pennsylvania specifically there is a law that any ballots which arrive in the post up until Friday have to be counted if they have a postmark of the 3rd or before.

    Also note that there have been court decisions to order the Postal Service to “sweep” several times in different places to see if they can find further vote envelopes in their premises. And they have been finding lots of votes through these “sweeps”.

    The creaking Postal Service, which has had several political interventions into its operation in the run-up to the election, is another factor in the slow vote count.

    I think the Daily Star also alighted on another aspect to all this…

  • Barbara Tye-Townsel: yes, the 50 different state laws is an issue, but shouldn’t in itself slow things down. In the UK we have 4 different legislatures anyway – I was talking about the UK, not just England. And if there are 7 times as many voters then you need 7 times as many counters.
    Also, quite a lot of states are using scanning machines and they should speed up the vote. For most elections here the counting is still done by hand.
    But I won’t quibble. I’m a very happy bunny today!

  • John Marriott 7th Nov '20 - 11:47am

    @Mary Reid
    Better to take your time and get it right than hurry and get it wrong. Now, if the opposition parties at Westminster had adopted that approach last year……

  • @John Marriott


    I think to be fair when we have close constituency elections then they take quite a long time and can go to the courts…. Winchester in 1997 took several months – imagine if that had been the one key state – a Florida for example.

    Actually the American TV practice of “calling” the state before the full result is known can mean that the result of the election is known quite quickly – in fact sometimes due to the time zones before the voting everywhere has finished. Although they have got a bit more cautious in recent years! I can’t think why!!!!

  • By the way, @John Marriott I was right again in predicting Biden would win! Just listen to Mystic Michael 🙂 !

    You see the polls have all the answers – well OK maybe. The point was that they needed to be out by a lot for Trump to win – and they nearly were!

  • neil sandison 7th Nov '20 - 2:31pm

    What I think we are all missing is the huge turnout by voters it makes our voter turnout at both local and national level almost embarrassing . if linked to PR and electronic counting every vote would count .The electors voice would be heard . Those hanging on to the old system of just turning out on one specific date and FPTP system are excluding many voters and creating electoral fiefdoms where your vote does not matter and those voters know it hence very poor turn outs . Scotland uses a proportional system no one complains about postal votes .

  • I believe that by using single ballots all the elections can be counted simultaneously through the scanning machines. There is a simple limit to the speed that ballots can be sorted, prepared and feed into the scanners. An unclear vote on any election on the ballot has to be adjudicated, slowing the process. All this only happens after the signatures are matched to validate the vote in the first place which the Trump campaign stopped happening as they arrived.

  • Tony Greaves 8th Nov '20 - 5:25pm

    In this country when there are council (and perhaps parish/town council) elections at the same time as a General Election (or anyway if the count is sensibly delayed to the next day) the council votes may take well into the afternoon to finish. I do not understand the obsession with counting votes fast – what matters is getting it right.

  • Daniel Walker 9th Nov '20 - 9:49am

    @Tony Greaves “I do not understand the obsession with counting votes fast – what matters is getting it right.

    Quite right, of course, particularly in the US where there’s a gap of many weeks between polling day and taking up the post; there’s no need to rush at all.

    @Richard Underhill “In euro-elections we voted on Thursdays, turned the papers upside down and counted at the weekend for religious reasons.

    I realise you’re being facetious, but of course the reason was (quite rightly, in my view) to prevent the outcome of Euro votes in member states that vote on Thursdays from influencing the yet-to-be-cast votes in member states that vote at the weekend.

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