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How counting of votes takes place in US states & why we shouldn’t expect a final result soon

With a system for early voting in place, administrations have to process and count ballots differently. This process differs from state to state.

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New Delhi: Americans across 50 US states and the District of Columbia headed out to choose their 46th president Tuesday, with almost 86 million (8.6 crore) early votes already cast. Unlike in India, where the Election Commission announces final results days after various rounds of polling, US states will individually declare results at various times.

With a system for early voting in place, administrations have to process and count ballots differently. This process differs from state to state, with ballot processing preceding ballot counting in most places.

Processing can involve verifying signatures on the envelopes of mail-in ballots, checking photocopies of identification documents or even scanning ballots, but not tabulating them until counting can begin. In some states, ballot processing doesn’t take place until the Election Day.

Delay in delivery of mail-in votes and processing of ballots can also lead to ballot-counting backlog that can hold-up the final results for days.

Out of the 50 US states, 40 permit some vote processing before the Election Day. Six others, including swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, allow processing of votes on the Election Day. Four other states and Washington DC have flexible rules.

Of the above states, 17, including swing states like Arizona and Florida, permit vote counting before Election Day, 16 allow counting to begin before the polls close on Election Day and 17 states, along with Washington DC, allow counting only after the polling closes.

Also, polls open and close at different times in various states but the window is broadly from 6 am to 9 pm.

Due to the flood of mail-in votes this year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, some states have tweaked their rules. For example, the US Supreme Court has allowed Pennsylvania extra time to accept absentee ballots, after 3 November, due to delays in mail service. The state had earlier declared that it will take “several days” to count votes.

Should any election dispute arise, states will have to certify results by 8 December, also known as the “safe harbour” deadline.

On 14 December, the Electoral College, which actually elects the president, is required to vote.

Also read: Trump, Biden make final push in states seen as key to victory

When will we start hearing results

During a press briefing Monday, Meena Bose, director of the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of American Presidency at the Hofstra University, said, “The excitement begins at 6 pm EST (4.30 am IST Wednesday) when the polls close in Indiana and Kentucky.”

With regard to swing states, Bose expects North Carolina and Ohio to announce results around 7.30 pm EST (6 pm IST Wednesday). She also added that Florida, which started vote counting two weeks ago, may follow suit half an hour later.

Florida is a critical swing state, having backed the winner of every presidential race since 1964, except once in 1992. By 9 pm EST, results for Arizona should be out, she had said.

While early results in some key states may indicate the winner, many won’t have complete results for weeks as they will be counting mail-in votes.

Since 22 states and Washington DC allow postmarked ballots to arrive after Election Day and only nine states expect to have at least 98 per cent of unofficial results reported by noon on the day of election, results declared on 3 November are also likely to be skewed.

Also read: Biden ahead in swing states, but pollsters say there’s a ‘shy Trump’ votebank to watch out for


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