Just the Facts

Five Facts on How Election Winners are Decided

By No Labels
November 6, 2018 | Blog

Today is election day! Here are five facts on how the winners are decided:

Polls across the country will close in waves throughout the night, starting with 6 p.m. ET and ending at 12 a.m. ET

At 6 p.m. polls in most of Indiana and the eastern half of Kentucky will be the first to shut down. This includes Kentucky’s 6th District, where former Marine and Democrat Amy McGrath is trying to unseat Republican incumbent Andy Barr.  This is one of the closest races in the country and early results coming out of this district will provide some of the earliest indications of how the night will play out. Over the ensuing hours, polls in Georgia, most of Florida, New Hampshire, Western Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia will close at 7 p.m. At 8 p.m., every polling station across the entire eastern seaboard with the exception of New York will shut down. By 10 p.m. only states along the Pacific coast, as well as a small part of Idaho and North Dakota will still be open. The last polling locations to close will be at 1 a.m., when the islands off Alaska’s mainland close for the night.

Twenty two states allow certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail

Of these 22 states, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado are the only ones that conduct all their elections entirely by mail. Due to their convenience, mail-in ballots have been proven to increase voter turnout, especially in smaller elections. However, the additional time needed to count mail-in ballots can often result in a delay of the final count. In order to count mail-in ballots, election officials have to verify the identity of each voter by matching the signature on their mail-in ballot to the signature on file at the election office. This signature-matching process has proven problematic for voters whose signatures may have changed due to a variety of reasons, such as age or disability.

Once polls close, different states have different ways of counting the votes

Perhaps the most dramatic counting procedure occurs in Los Angeles County, where helicopters escorted by the sheriff’s office transport ballots from the polls to a central counting location at the county clerk’s headquarters. However, most polling locations are a little more boring. Once polling locations close, poll workers will shut down the voting machines and ensure that the number of ballots equals the number of voters that signed in throughout the day.  Some polling locations will count the votes themselves and relay that message, generally over the phone, to a central location, such as the county clerk’s office or a state election official’s office.  Other locations require data, often carried on memory sticks, from the polling locations to be delivered by hand to the central location, where the info is downloaded and the votes are recorded. Once the election day votes are counted, provisional, mail, and absentee ballots need to be counted before the results are certified by the secretary of state or state Board of Elections.

If a race is close enough a recount is often required to confirm a winner   

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia allow a losing candidate to call for a recount in the election. However, because state law governs recount procedures there is no uniform process for conducting the recount. Furthermore, 20 states and the District of Columbia have laws that require a recount if the vote is within a certain margin. For example, if the vote margin is within .5% of all the votes cast, states such as Alabama, Colorado, Florida, and New Mexico would require that the ballots be recounted. Other states, like Michigan, require a recount if the margin is less than a certain number of votes (2,000 in Michigan). Three states, Texas, South Dakota, and Alaska require a recount if the vote is a tie. While no statewide or federal election has ever ended in a tie, there have been several instances of local races being decided by coin flips, drawing cards, or drawing straws.

There is a real possibility we won’t know the outcome of numerous races until days, if not weeks after election day

There are numerous factors that could cause a delay in calling these races.  Some states, such as California, where there are seven close House races, allow mail-in ballots to be counted after election day.  In California, if the ballot is postmarked by Election Day, it has three days to arrive at a county election office to be counted. If some of those races are particularly close, it will be impossible to declare a winner until those mail-in ballots are counted.  In addition, other states such as Georgia and Mississippi, require that the winner also receive at least 50% of the vote.  If that doesn’t happen, then a run-off will occur.  Elections experts have speculated that this could cause run-offs in the highly contested Georgia governor’s race, as well as the Mississippi Senate race. If they do require run-offs, we wouldn’t know the winner in either until December. Furthermore, recounts, provisional ballots, and glitches in voting machines can also seriously delay official results.

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