In any election, Tuesday night totals are incomplete and preliminary. In this election, the preliminary nature of “election night” returns is magnified by the unprecedented volume of mail ballots and the vagaries of state law on how they are processed and counted.
According to the Brennan Center, since 2010 about out-in-four ballots cast in a federal election have been mail ballots.
This year, 64 million mail ballots had been received on Monday, according to University of Florida professor Michael McDonald. And 99.6 million have already voted; 136.5 million people in total voted in 2016. McDonald projects that 150 million of us vote this cycle.
About two-in-three Americans (65%) say the option to vote early or absentee should be available to any voter, period, according to a June Pew Research Center survey. Unsurprisingly, “Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents were about twice as likely as Republicans and GOP-leaners to support ‘no excuse’ absentee or early voting (83% vs. 44%).”
“Processing” typically means comparing the signature on the outside of the return envelope against the signature on record to ensure a match. Some states also require an affidavit, witness, or notary (National Conference of State Legislatures illustration).
Thirteen state legislatures (104 EC votes) don’t trust elections officials to validate signatures and thus make it harder to vote by mail.
- Requires two witnesses or notary: AL
- Requires notarized signature: MO, MS, OK
- Requires a witness: AK, MN, LA, NC, RI, SC, VA, WI
Two are key states in this election: Virginia (13 EC votes) and Wisconsin (10 EC votes). Three states exempt their military and overseas voters from these requirements: LA, RI, SC.
Which states allow voters to “cure” a ballot?
The majority of US states (and US electoral votes) do not require elections officials to contact voters so that they can correct ballot signatures: make a mistake, ballot to waste bin.
Should a signature be missing or not match the signature in the voter registration database, elections officials reach out to a voter to “cure” their ballot. This is an important process to ensure that ballots are not discarded due to a mistake or a person’s signature changing over time, as all of ours do with age.
Only 18 states (240 EC votes) require that officials reach out to voters to cure their ballots.
- 240 electoral votes:
AZ, CA, CO, FL, GA, HI, IA, IL, MA, MN, MT, NJ, NV, OH, OR, RI, UT, WA
Timing: who begins before November 3
In order to provide voters with a reasonable chance for their ballot to be counted if there is a problem with a signature, elections officials must begin processing early. Again, processing is not counting; it is not scanning ballots into a tabulation system with or without counting those votes.
Eight states will not begin processing ballots until November 3rd. An additional three allowed larger communities to begin processing early this year (even if by only a day) but smaller communities are held to the Election Day standard.
These 11 states account for 99 electoral votes.
- Louisiana, Michigan and South Dakota allow larger communities to begin before November 3rd
- Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming begin processing mail ballots on November 3rd
Timing: who begins scanning before November 3
After initial processing, elections staff will separate the exterior envelope from the ballot and its safety sleeve/envelope. The secrecy envelope/privacy sleeve is used to clearly separate voter identifying information on the exterior envelope from the ballot.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states will toss a “naked ballot” if the voter failed to use the secrecy envelope. However, Georgia and Florida told NBC that privacy sleeves are optional. And at least in King County, WA, they aren’t required either.
These 13 states account for 169 electoral votes
- AK, HI, KY, MN, NH, NJ, NY, ND, OH, PA, TX, VA, WV
After being separated from the ballot envelope, the ballot and sleeve/privacy envelope part ways. In Washington, ballots are inspected by teams of two to ensure that they can be read by scanners.
Of the 42 states allow processing prior to November 3rd, 22 allow scanning to begin before then. Some of these states allow the votes to be counted in the run-up to the elections. Others allow them to be scanned into the tabulation system but not actually counted. In both cases, ballots scanned prior to whatever time “poll closure” might be will be included in election night reports.
These 22 states account for 278 electoral votes
- AZ, CA, CO, DE, FL, GA, HI, IA, KS, LA, ME, MD, MN, MT, NE, NV, NJ, NC, OK, OR, TX, WA
Timing: which states accept mail ballots after November 3
There’s nothing uniform about when mail ballots need to be returned to an elections office or dropbox. Louisiana requires them to be returned by November 2. Alabama requires them to be in by noon on Election Day; New Hampshire, 5 pm.
But 21 states and DC (317 electoral votes) accept mailed ballots postmarked by November 3 from one day to two weeks after Election Day.
- AK, CA, DC, IL, IA, KS, KY, MA, MD, MN, MS, NC, ND, NE, NJ, NY, OH, PA, TX, UT, VA, WA
Timing: when do polls close
There is definitely an east-coast-centric feel to when polls close, with western states steadfast in their rejection of that constraint. All times are eastern.
- 7:00 pm
GA, IN, KY, SC, VA, VT, WV
- 7:30 pm
- 8:00 pm
AL, CT, DE, DC, FL, IL, MA, MD, ME, MS, MO, NH, NJ, OK, PA, RI, TN
- 8:30 pm
- 9:00 pm
AZ, CO, KS, LA, MI, MN, NE, NM, NY, ND, SD, TX, WI, WY
- 10:00 pm
IA, MT, NE, UT
- 11:00 pm
CA, ID, OR, WA
- 1:00 am Wednesday
Kathy E. Gill worked at King County Elections, the largest county in the country to vote by mail until 2020, for eight years.