In U.S. elections, why does it take so long to count votes?


Tuesday is election day. Although voters are not electing a president this year, they are electing members of Congress and state and local officials. So this is a big day for the US democratic system.

You may see stories or social media posts announcing the winners on Tuesday evening. But even in the era of powerful computers and other fast technologies, the election process does not end in a few hours or the next day.

Gretchen Maxt, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Rhode Island, talked to KidsPost about why. Industrial engineers work on systems and processes. Macht has learned a lot about how election processes work since 2016, when he was asked to help eliminate long voting lines in Rhode Island.

“When we count the votes, it takes time because we want to get it right,” Mact said. She says kids can think of it like assigning homework. “If you rush to do that homework, you’ll get it done, but is that right? Isn’t it better to experience it, to take your time?”.

There is a long tradition of announcing election night ballots, but these results are unofficial. “They don’t double and triple check,” Macht said. This is because there are many ways to vote and count votes in the United States.

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When the founders defined the election process, they did not include many details. They left the “Times, Places, and Manner of Elections of Senators and Representatives” to state legislatures, according to the United States Constitution. As the nation grew and technology advanced, the process became more complex.

“We have 50 different ways of doing things,” Mact said.

Each state determines what is best for its residents, whether they live in big cities, small towns, or outlying areas.

The timing of voting can include voting days or weeks before and on election day. Locations can be mailboxes, boxes, or designated polling stations in neighborhoods. And the “style” might be to use paper ballots that are marked by hand and then scanned; machines that put characters on paper (often from voices marked on a display screen); or machines that deliver votes directly to a computerized vote counting system. The manual marking system is the most common.

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After voters finish casting their ballots on Tuesday, election officials and volunteers have plenty of work to do. Each polling station or precinct must provide ballot papers and submit them to the local election commission. Once they do, the city or county will often post those results on their website. However, even though all precincts have finished reporting, these results are not official.

The next thing is called canvassing. Election officials or a group of people who may be members of each major political party review the ballots for potential problems. They make sure poll workers and voters follow the rules.

“What if I voted by mail and forgot to sign the envelope? I guess my vote doesn’t count,” Mack said, which some voters might think.

But the system is designed to catch this error. Many states allow voters to “cure” or correct such problems so that their votes are counted. But voters may have to contact those people, and voters may have to come in person.

After the local council is satisfied that all the ballots have been counted correctly, the local officials review them again and then confirm them or make those results official. Most states allow counties or cities 1-3 weeks to complete this process. California, which has about 22 million registered voters, is allowed up to 30 days.

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They send local results to the state election commission, which has its own review process. After that, the officials will confirm the results across the state.

Sometimes this lengthy process confirms the unofficial results on election night, but in very close elections, another candidate may win. There is nothing wrong or suspicious about that. It’s just election officials and volunteers making sure they do their homework as accurately as possible.

Macht admits that waiting can be frustrating, and she encourages kids to ask questions.

“It’s exciting and you want to know the results,” he said. “Be patient. If you don’t like the process, you can talk to the constituents. They want to share that information with you.”

A note from the KidsPost team: Our stories are aimed at children between the ages of 7 and 13. We welcome discussion from readers of all ages, but please follow our community guidelines and comment appropriately for that age group.


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