What could possibly be taking so long in the US vote count?


One month ago, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, Americans voted for their next president.

Donald Trump won the election—despite the fact that Hillary Clinton got more votes. And that, while not exactly intuitive, makes sense, once you untangle the knotty process that is the Electoral College. What makes less sense is this: Clinton’s lead, in terms of popular votes, appears to be growing day by day. A month after the election, the US is still counting votes.

That’s not the recounting effort lead by Jill Stein to figure out whether there have been mistakes in the counting of votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Nevada—this is the part of the first round of counting.

Surely, four weeks and counting is way too long to spend tallying votes, even if there are nearly 137 millions of them. In other countries, it’s customary to have results in a matter of days: in Sunday’s referendum in Italy, for instance, only a handful of towns took longer than a day to have a final counts of votes, and in the UK, constituencies literally race one another to be the fastest to announce their final numbers.

Granted, these are countries smaller than the US, but not a whole month smaller. What could possibly be taking so long in the States?

In the US, too, the initial count happens within the first 24 hours: it’s mostly done by machines and most precincts report by Wednesday morning (elections are always held on Tuesday).

But then these preliminary counts are typically subject to cross-checking (for instance making sure the number of ballots equals the number of voters)—which sometimes leads to an initial recounting (again, not the Jill Stein recount) before the final numbers are certified.

That’s been going on for years, though. Since 2002, a new phenomena of extreme delays has arisen, says Edward B. Foley, a professor of constitutional law at the Ohio State university and the author of Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States. That was the year that he Help America Vote Act passed. The Act was designed to help citizens vote, but there were “unintended consequences” says Foley: absentee and provisional ballots have dramatically slowed the pace of the final vote count.

Absentee ballots

While the majority of states require absentee ballots to be received by election day, or the day before, a few allow them to be postmarked on those days. This means that ballots may keep arriving through the the week, or weeks, after the polls close. Then they need to be verified, counted, and perhaps recounted. It takes a while.

Provisional ballots

In the US elections, voters who encounter a disputed situation at the polls (for instance, their registration information is inaccurate or can’t be found, their ID isn’t valid, or their ballot is already recorded as cast) have the option of casting a provisional ballot. Such ballots are kept separately, and sometimes voters are required to provide further information (for instance, ID verification) to confirm their eligibility. They typically have a week to do so—obviously creating delays in the initial count.

And then, there’s California

California is one of about a dozen states that haven’t yet certified their final vote count, according to a tracker by David Wasserman, a reporter with the Cook Political Report. But California stands out: it’s home to the largest number of voters compared to other states, and the most still to-be-counted ballots come from there, too.

It’s because the state has a particularly high number of provisional ballots, according to Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a member of the MIT’s Voting Technology Project. There are, Stewart says, two common reasons for provisional ballots: the first is when the voter was sent an absentee ballot, but went to the polling station instead; the second is when a voter has moved within a county, but didn’t inform the electoral office. Because it’s so large, and more populous than any other US states, “California has a high rate of people moving around within [their] county,” Stewart says.

There are also a lot of votes that come in via mail, and a good portion of those arrive damaged. Officials have reported that coffee stains and traces of jelly and other things that look like a voting mark are common, so extra time is required to figure out what was the voter’s choice—and what was their breakfast’s.

California’s laws are more permissive than others when it comes to provisional ballots, and vary from county to county—therefore the state takes it’s time to certify the votes.

After all, Stewart notes, “What’s the rush? The administrator’s job is to get the count correct rather than taking it fast.”

And ultimately, in this election at least, it’s probably not a big deal: Clinton so clearly won the state for electoral college purposes (which is what ultimately matters in the election) that the remaining votes, no matter how much they add to Clinton’s national popular tally, won’t change anything.

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