Election Night 2020 could go on for weeks — just look at the primaries

If you hope to settle in to watch the Nov. 3 results, you may want to make other plans. During this year’s Democratic primaries, it took days, and sometimes weeks, for the bulk of votes to get counted.

Before the pandemic struck, mail-in states like California were already counting slowly. Then the coronavirus forced dozens of states to quickly expand absentee voting, and the slowdowns got more dramatic. These two trends — more absentee voting, not much time to prepare for it — could lead to some snail’s-paced race calls in November.

These charts show how long it took for presidential primary ballots to be counted in each state. We aren’t including caucuses (you may remember Iowa’s fiasco) because that method of voting won’t occur in November. Let’s start with New Hampshire, which held the nation’s first primary.

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If you missed some of this slow counting, it’s probably because it didn’t heavily impact the Democratic presidential primary. Joe Biden had already taken a commanding lead in the race March 3, and became the presumptive Democratic nominee after his final challenger Bernie Sanders dropped out in early April.

[Most Americans want to vote before Election Day, a significant shift from previous years, poll finds]

But high-profile down-ballot races were affected. In the June 23 Democratic Senate primary to challenge Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), counties were advised to not release results until June 30. Some counties released partial results anyway, leaving the top two candidates effectively tied after the polls closed. A week later, a huge dump of votes revealed Amy McGrath to be the winner.

Not every state had such a dramatic delay, and gradual counting only matters when a race is close. In Georgia’s Democratic primary for an open Senate seat, Jon Ossoff held a healthy lead over his opponents from Election Day on. Even though it took weeks to finishing counting votes, analysts called the election for Ossoff a couple days in.

Each state has a different set of laws and policies that affect how votes are counted. Processing mail-in ballots takes longer than processing in-person ballots, and many more voters plan to vote by mail than in previous years. But some states — including battlegrounds Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — prohibit election administrators from starting to process mail-in votes until Election Day itself.

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How long each state took to report results

States that voted before March 17 After March 17
States that primarily voted by mail in 2018

The hopeful news: States have had much more time to plan for the general election than they had for the primaries, when the emerging pandemic forced decisions to be made quickly. But if a decisive state like Wisconsin ends up close, don’t be surprised if your election night plans are spoiled.

About this story

Results data is from Edison Research, The Post’s election results vendor. For each primary, we tracked how many votes Edison had released every hour for two weeks after the election. These vote totals are the preliminary counts typically reported by the media on Election Day, which can differ slightly from the final, certified results for a number of technical reasons. For simplicity, this article considers a state to have reported “nearly complete results” when more than 99 percent of the preliminary vote count was reported by Edison.

We considered states to be primarily vote-by-mail if a majority of their votes were cast by mail in the 2018 election. Many states have expanded vote-by-mail since 2018.

Poll closing times are from the Green Papers.

Some state parties hold caucuses instead of primary elections, which differ in a number of ways including that there is no poll closing time. We have excluded caucuses from the analysis.

Jason Holt contributed to this report.

Ashlyn Still is a graphics reporter on the elections team.
Kevin Schaul is a senior graphics editor for The Washington Post. He covers national politics and public policy using data and visuals.