The onslaught of mail-in voting in 2020 — and the cumbersome procedures to count those ballots — could delay full election results by days or weeks in some parts of the region.
Although unofficial results will be published after polls close on election night in each jurisdiction, officials say those totals will be updated with thousands of absentee and mail-in ballots that are counted in the days that follow.
The pandemic pushed states and cities across the country to encourage voters to avoid the polls on Election Day by voting early or by mail. The election infrastructure in most states, however, was built to quickly tabulate results based on the vast majority of voters showing up in person and putting their own ballots into the system.
While remote voting reduced the public health risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, it also separates voters from their ballots. Counting them requires what elections officials call a chain-of-custody process that takes considerably more time and ensures each remote vote is carefully tracked.
Virginia got a nearly two-month head start on processing ballots ahead of Election Day after a new law made it easier to vote early, and the state still expects to certify final tallies by Nov. 16.
But the record-shattering use of mail-in voting has made it impossible for elections leaders in Maryland and D.C. to predict when they will certify final counts.
“That’s like the million-dollar question,” Gilberto Zelaya, spokesman for the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said last week from a rec center gymnasium converted into a 60-judge canvassing operation. “That’s like asking me for the lotto numbers.”
Montgomery, Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction, is facing the state’s biggest ballot-counting task. Voters requested a record 370,142 mail-in ballots so far this year, more than double what was requested statewide in 2016, and requests are still coming.
The state made an emergency law change to allow Maryland jurisdictions to start counting ballots on Oct. 1 — more than a month early — in the hope of delivering some semblance of results on Election Day. Officials also worried that if they didn’t start that early, Maryland might not finish counting all of the mail-in ballots before the electoral college is required to meet on Dec. 14.
“The more we can count, the better,” said Zelaya, who hopes the county can process about 25,000 ballots per day. “We can give you a better picture of the landscape if you send it in early.”
All ballots counted through Election Day will be embargoed until the polls close and then posted publicly that night, along with the results from early voting and Election Day ballots.
More than 1.6 million voters had requested mail-in ballots in Maryland as of Tuesday, officials said, and more than 695,000 ballots had been returned and processed by Tuesday. As mail-in vote-counting continues, additional results will be posted publicly each day votes are canvassed after the election. Not all Maryland jurisdictions plan to canvass votes every day, though — the process is tedious.
Like Maryland, D.C. will post unofficial results after polls close on Nov. 3 — but this initial tally is likely to omit mailed ballots received that day and voters who are still in line.
The D.C. Board of Elections is mailing a ballot to every registered voter for the first time this year — more than half a million people — and had already started processing more than 100,000 ballots that have been returned by mail and ballot drop boxes as of Tuesday.
That exercise means checking each ballot for errors, verifying the signature and eventually running it through a machine that logs how many votes each candidate received, according to board spokesman Nick Jacobs.
Unofficial results will be updated periodically online in the days after the election as votes are counted, said Alice Miller, executive director of the D.C. Board of Elections. But Nov. 13 is the latest date the board can accept a mailed ballot postmarked by Election Day, and she anticipates staff will be processing and counting them throughout the month.
It’s unclear exactly when the board will be able to certify final results, she added. D.C. elections officials have hired additional staff to help rapidly process and count ballots in the weeks ahead.
“Final results will not be as quickly available as they have been in the past due to the number of mail ballots we’ll have to count and process,” Miller said. “We should certify them before the end of November, I would think. Maybe by the end of the third week — that’s an estimate.”
In Virginia, election officials say it may take as long as six days after Election Day for unofficial results to be known, because of an expected surge of absentee ballots that will either arrive in the mail that week or land in drop boxes set up as an additional safety precaution during the pandemic.
Election officials got a jump on processing ballots after record turnout for early voting that has so far resulted in nearly 1.5 million ballots cast in the state since that process started on Sept. 18. In Virginia, election officials can begin scanning ballots into their systems upon receipt, making a tally as easy as running a report.
But tens of thousands of absentee ballots that are expected to arrive on Election Day and the days after will not be included in those initial counts, a factor this year that could weigh heavily in some of the state’s closer congressional races and a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would restructure political redistricting.
Jessica Bowman, a deputy state commissioner for elections, said Virginia has been working with the U.S. Postal Service to ensure that absentee ballots sent on or before Nov. 3 arrive on time. In Virginia, absentee ballots can be received by local election officials as late as noon on Nov. 6. By law, the state must certify the election results on Nov. 16.
“We have been in touch and continue to be in continual contact with USPS. They have assured election mail will have priority,” Bowman said.
Gary D. Scott, the general registrar in Fairfax County, the state’s largest voting jurisdiction, said his office anticipates “a fairly large” mail delivery of absentee ballots on Election Day, plus another 20,000 that the county anticipates will land in its nearly 250 drop boxes on Nov. 3. During the week after the election, Scott said, there will probably be another 20,000 absentee ballots arriving.
All of those ballots will be scanned into the county’s machines and tallied after Nov. 3, Scott said.
“I think definitely we can have something by the end of the day on [Nov. 9],” Scott said of the county’s unofficial results. “We’re shooting for [Nov. 7]. That will be our goal, but I’m not real sure that’s achievable.”
So far, about 133,500 absentee ballots have arrived, the Fairfax elections office said. But another 133,250 that were sent out to voters have not yet come in.
The county also expects there to be about 2,400 provisional ballots, which have generally been cast by voters who received an absentee ballot, then showed up to vote early without bringing that ballot in so it could be nullified.
In neighboring Loudoun County, election officials are hoping to have their total results in by the Friday after the election, said Judy Brown, the county’s general registrar.
Brown said the county will bring in extra volunteers during the week of the election to scan uncounted ballots as quickly as possible.
As of Tuesday, nearly 38,000 ballots cast early have been scanned into the county’s ballot machines, she said.
But “I don’t know how many ballots are still out there that need to be counted,” Brown added.