Expect Election Week, Not Election Night: Officials Say Results Will Take Time

Marcia McCoy drops her ballot into a box outside the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

By Amie Knowles
October 30, 2020

Due to a still growing number of absentee ballots, final results won’t be out until Friday.

RICHMOND – Virginia’s final election results likely won’t be known until next Friday, state officials say. What people might not realize is that this is normal. The totals announced each year on Election Night are “unofficial”, since absentee ballots still have to be counted. The official results aren’t certified until sometimes weeks later.

The only difference is that in a normal year, there aren’t enough absentee votes to change the result of any statewide or national races. That’s why news organizations announce winners on Election Night. But this is 2020 and things are different.

After the General Assembly changed the rules for absentee voting in this state, thousands of people requested that option, concerned about COVID-19. As of Oct. 29, that number included more than 817,000 residents. Counting that many ballots takes time, state officials say, so it’s possible they won’t even be able to declare “unofficial” winners next Tuesday.

Speaking at a Wednesday press conference, Virginia Secretary of Administration Keyanna Conner said results would still roll in throughout the evening after polling precincts closed.

“We’ve given localities a cutoff time of 11 p.m. to stop processing absentee ballots for that evening. That means that localities at that time will still need to close out their machines and go through the normal end of evening process and then report those [mail-in] numbers on Election Night,” Conner said. “Some localities may report earlier than 11 p.m. It depends on the volume and timing of ballots returned.”

Counting will resume on Wednesday, Nov. 4, with mail-in numbers updated after Friday, Nov. 6 at noon.

“Virginians should expect that the results could change in the days after the elections,” Conner said. “Results on Election Night have always been unofficial.”

When will results be finalized?

Local electoral boards will certify results a week after the election, on Tuesday, Nov. 10. The state board will certify the election in Virginia the following week, on Monday, Nov. 16.

Part of the issue is that while mail-in ballots arrive weeks and even a month prior to the election, they can’t be counted yet. 

“No tabulation can take place until after polls are closed on Election Night,” said Andrea Gaines, director of community relations for the Virginia Dept. of Elections. “Localities may [only] pre-process absentee ballots prior to Election Day.” 

To explain, pre-processing means local officials can open the envelopes and scan the ballots. That’s when they show up in Ballot Scout as having arrived at the registrar’s office to be counted. But while the ballots can be scanned in, per Virginia law, they can’t be actually counted until the polls close on Nov. 3.

Kelly Martin, general registrar and director of elections in Campbell County, told Dogwood she couldn’t say how long it would take her group to finish counting. 

“We will start pre-processing early because it’s been extremely busy, but we don’t start tabulating until that night,” Martin said. “So we hope, just like every other election, that we’re going to have everything completed before 11 p.m. to be able to send in the results.”

Looking at the numbers

Between the 817,000 mail-in requests and 1.4 million early voters, it’s clear people want to be involved this year. If you add the mail-in and early voting totals, that comes to just over 2 million, nearly four times the number of Virginians that voted early in 2016. It’s also almost 55% of the total 2016 turnout.

In fact, as of Wednesday at 1 p.m., approximately 36% of all Virginia’s registered voters had submitted their ballot. If you haven’t cast a ballot yet, you have two days to take advantage of early voting. That runs through 5 p.m. on Saturday. If you’re voting by mail, that ballot has to be postmarked by Nov. 3 and officials must receive it by noon on Friday, Nov. 6 for it to count.

As for those planning to vote on Election Day, the polls open at 6 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. If you’re still in line when 7 p.m. arrives, don’t worry. You’ll be allowed to vote.

And for those people concerned about the virus, Conner said safety precautions are being set up at all polling precincts.

“We have a strong partnership with the Medical Reserve Corps of Virginia that will help to ensure a safe and sanitary polling precinct for all Virginia voters,” Conner said. “We encourage you to take your mask with you before heading out to cast your ballot.”

The wait begins

The delays might include state and national races. For example, it’s possible that the president-elect could remain a mystery not just on Election Night, but in the days following.

“So once again, I’d like to emphasize patience when it comes to results on Election Night,” Conner said. “We will have results rolling in over the course of the evening, but the bulk of those absentee numbers will come later in that evening or on the days following the election.”

In his press conference Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam also emphasized a potentially longer wait than usual.

“I just wanted to remind everyone, we’re looking more at an Election Week, than an Election Night,” Northam said. “And that’s nothing to be alarmed about. That’s the process working as the law intended.”

For those unfamiliar with early voting locations in their county or city or need to know where to go on Election Day, visit www.vote.virginia.gov

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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