For most elections, Americans know the results a few hours after polling places close in a state. However, election night outcomes are based on preliminary results.

Official vote counts can last anywhere from one day to one month after Election Day, depending on state law. Each state also gets to decide how and when in-person and mail-in ballots are counted.

How are votes counted on Election Day?

Ballots filled out in-person can start being counted after polls close on Election Day. If the voting center uses paper ballots, each ballot box is sealed and delivered to a vote-counting center. Once the ballots arrive, the elections staff starts the vote counting process.

If digital voting machines are used, election officials send voter data to the counting center. Voting machine data can either be sent electronically or be hand delivered to the counting center. Once the data arrives, officials can start processing the results.

In some states, votes cast during the early voting period are counted before Election Day, with the results published after polls close. In other states, early votes are counted along with Election Day ballots.

How are mail-in ballots counted?

The rules for processing and counting mail-in ballots vary from state to state. These differences can impact how long it takes to report election results to the public.

Ballot processing refers to verifying that the requirements for mail-in votes were followed for the outside of a ballot envelope. Most states allow election officials to begin processing ballots before Election Day. However, 10 states and Washington, DC do not allow mail-in ballots to be processed until Election Day.

Ballot counting refers to tallying up the votes from mail-in ballots. Most states allow election officials to begin counting on Election Day, either before or after polls close. However, 10 states allow mail-in ballots to be processed and counted before Election Day, with the results published after polls close.

Ten states allow mail-in ballots to be counted before Election Day.

When mail-in ballots can begin to be counted, by state

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Every state requires voters to sign the outside envelope of a mail-in ballot, swearing their identity. Eight states do not require any additional verification beyond the signature.

Eight states require at least one witness to also sign the ballot, attesting to a voter’s identity. Three states require mail-in ballots to also be notarized to be counted. Many of these states reduced or eliminated witness requirements in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but reinstated requirements for the 2022 election.

Twenty-eight states use signature matching to confirm a voters’ identity. To do this, election officials compare the voter’s signature on the ballot to the signature on their voting registration form. If the signatures do not match, ballots are put aside until voters can prove their identity.

Three states require absentee ballots to be notarized.

Verification methods for absentee ballots, by state

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More than 70 million mail-in ballots were returned in 2020, according to data from the US Election Assistance Commission. About 5 million ballots were rejected, less than 1% of the total returned. One-third of the rejected ballots were due to mismatched signatures.

If mail-in ballots contain mismatched signatures, the ballots are set aside by election officials. In most cases[1], election officials are required to notify the voter that their ballot contains an error.

In 24 states, voters can “cure” their ballots by verifying their identity with election officials. This process can take place over the phone or in person. Seventeen states require voters to cure ballots before polls close on Election Day, while seven states allow ballot curing to occur after Election Day.

Eight states do not allow voters to “cure” ballots with errors. Voters may be sent a second ballot or vote in person if they are notified early enough.

Eight states do not allow voters to cure ballots with signature errors.

Ballot curing availability, by state

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What else can slow down election results?

Provisional ballots are a type of ballot that must be hand-counted after polls close. Voters fill out a provisional ballot if there are questions around their eligibility to vote. This includes a voter’s name not appearing on a registration list or if they do not have valid voter ID. In these cases, voters fill out a provisional ballot. The provisional ballot is counted once officials can verify the eligibility and identity of the voter. This can involve the voter providing proof of eligibility in person after Election Day.

Voters cast more than 1.3 million provisional ballots in 2020, according to the US Election Assistance Commission. This makes up less than 1% of total ballots cast in the election. About 78% of provisional ballots were accepted in 2020. Of the ballots rejected, more than half were due to a voter not being registered in the state.

Along with provisional ballots, ballots cast by US citizens overseas can slow down the counting process. This category includes US servicepeople and their families along with Americans living abroad. More than 900,000 ballots were cast by those abroad in the 2020 election, with 98% of the ballots accepted.

How long does each state have to certify election results?

The final step in an election is certifying the results. An election’s results are certified by the chief election official in each state. Winners of an election cannot be sworn into their positions until the results of the election are certified.

First, counties must finish counting all mail-in and provisional ballots. This is also when the ballot curing process occurs. Once this process is finished, counties send the total results for their areas to state officials. The deadlines for this part of the process differ by state.

Next, officials review and double-check each outcome from the counties. Once state officials are finished, that’s when the chief election official for each state certifies the result.

The deadline to certify election results vary by state. The deadline also may differ based on the type of election. For example, every state must certify election results at least six days before the Electoral College meets in presidential election years. Federal House and Senate races and state and local elections may have different deadlines. Three states[2] do not have set deadlines for certifying elections.

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Presidential elections are certified by Congress after the Electoral College results are tallied. If a state submits conflicting electoral results, the House and Senate must agree on which result is valid. If the two chambers disagree, the electors certified by the state’s governor are counted as the valid result.

To learn about state laws regarding registration and requirements to vote, check out this USAFacts’ article on how do voting laws differ by state?

Election Administration and Voting Survey 2020
[1]

Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Tennessee do not have set deadlines for certifying election results.

[2]

Election officials may not be required to notify a voter if their mail-in ballot is rejected if the ballot is processed the day before or on Election Day.