The Facts About Reporting By-Mail Ballots — And Why it Takes Time


With Election Day (November 8) for the U.S. midterm elections here, we anticipate that the post-election counting period is likely to launch a new cycle of disinformation intended to undermine public confidence in the legitimacy of election outcomes. We have referred to these efforts as “manufactured chaos:” coordinated efforts to interfere with — and potentially overwhelm — normal election administration processes (including procedures and/or technology), based on assumptions of irregularities or malfeasance, even when allegations are not supported by facts. 

As part of the chaos that’s likely to come during the post-election counting period, we anticipate that false narratives about the time required to report results – and especially from by-mail ballots – are likely to be one of the key themes. In this short article, we dig more deeply into the details of by-mail counting operations, which might take days.

The process of counting ballots will come under intense scrutiny in several competitive states, and some are wondering about a basic issue:

What exactly does it mean when the media or election officials say that “more ballots have arrived,” or “we’re processing more ballots”?

In other words, many citizens (and even journalists) might be wondering…

  • Where are these additional ballots coming from?
  • Why are they just arriving now?
  • Why is this an ongoing process?
    But, most importantly…
  • Is all of this on the up-and-up, and can this process be trusted?

Short Answer

“Additional ballots” are arriving either from ongoing mail deliveries from the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), and/or “new ballots” are ready to count because election officials have prepared additional batches of recently-arrived ballots for the actual scanning process, strictly speaking.

A More Complete Answer

  1. “Counting ballots” actually involves more than just counting; it’s more properly termed “processing ballots,” because there are many steps involved.
  2. It is very difficult to quantify the universe of still-outstanding ballots that could arrive for processing in the days after Election Day.
    • Some states, for example, allow voters to use drop boxes across the state, and even if a ballot is received timely in a drop box in one county, it may need to be exchanged/transferred to another county for actual counting; that can take time.
  3. What will unfold in “ballot counting centers” in key states like Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania is a multi-step process that involves additional handling and verification to validate the ballots before they are even approved for counting; and
  4. Ballot processing follows a precise “chain of custody” that both 1) protects the integrity of the votes; and 2) adds to the time and labor required to process or “count” ballots.

Now For the Details

So, having read this far, you care about the details, and we appreciate that, so let’s do this.

  • About those ongoing mail arrivals: States have diverse rules for when by-mail ballots must be received or postmarked in order to be eligible for counting. In some states, as long as a ballot is postmarked before Election Day, it is still eligible to be counted — but it may take a few days to arrive at the elections office. As a result, election officials may need to repeatedly keep checking whether additional ballots with a valid postmark have been received.
  • About “chain of custody: Although exact procedures vary from state to state, examples of procedures to protect the chain of custody include the following:
    • Ballots are often collected from an official USPS P.O. Box (or other postal facility) only by authorized teams of election judges or poll workers, the members of which are affiliated with different political parties; when they collect ballots on election night, USPS officials often help them “sweep” the entire postal facility to ensure that no ballots to be transferred are overlooked.
    • It is also common for every container (i.e., a secure bag or transfer box) that contains a voted ballot to be sealed with tamper-evident seals; before sealing the container, the two judges from different parties would complete “chain of custody” documentation to record the individual seal numbers; and then, the chain of custody log is placed inside the container before sealing it with the numbered seal.
    • After the authorized bipartisan team of election judges transfers the container to the central elections facility, a different team of bipartisan judges at the receiving station would break the seal, remove the chain of custody log, and confirm that the broken seal they just removed matches the number on the seal that was applied at the collection facility; in this way, it can be documented by two different bipartisan teams that that as ballots were transferred from the postal facility to the elections office, no additional ballots could be added to, or removed from, the ballot container.
    • There is a hard deadline imposed to physically separate ballots that are “received timely” at the required hour at the elections office (and which can therefore be reviewed and validated before counting) versus those that arrived late, past the deadline. Timestamps and documentation are recorded, and timely vs. non-timely ballots are stored according to different protocols. In most states, non-timely ballots are recorded as late, but they will otherwise never be reviewed all; they are simply retained in accordance with state requirements for retention of election materials
  • About the “preprocessing” steps, before counting: When the media or officials say “we have more ballots to count,” that doesn’t mean a dump of ballots showed up out of the blue, or that there’s anything questionable or mysterious going on. It simply means that trained election staff methodically reviewing tray after tray of ballot return envelopes have completed all steps required to prepare ballots for scanning. The preprocessing tasks ensure that each ballot is a real ballot, from a registered voter, and that it passes every requirement necessary to be counted. While exact procedures vary from state to state, the tasks below are generally representative of common validation steps:
    • Verification of voter eligibility/registration (i.e., ensuring that the ballot actually came from a registered voter, by comparing information on the envelope to a voter registration database; and also confirming that it’s a voter for whom there is a record of having mailed the ballot to him/her).
    • Verification of voter identity/signature and/or oath/declaration (i.e., the voter’s signature is compared to other signature records, and a bipartisan team of election judges agree that there are no signature discrepancies).

If there are discrepancies in any of the tasks above, issues are escalated to authorized personnel to see if they can be resolved. If so, the ballot moves on; if not, the ballot will not be accepted for counting.

Only after all of the steps above are complete and the ballot is determined to be valid is it removed from its return envelope, separated from the voter’s identifying information (i.e., made anonymous, to preserve voter privacy), and placed into a secure area where ballots are counted with automated high-speed scanners and voting system software. Voting system software interprets voter marks on each ballot and aggregates all the choices, so that results reports can be generated (or, alternatively, the scanners “flag” ballots and/or marginal marks that require additional human review).

The Takeaway

To put a wrap on this, as you can imagine from these details, counting ballots is an intensive, laborious, and multi-step process. Election officials are essentially working in an assembly line fashion, over long hours, to prepare more and more ballots for the scanning machines—and in some instances mail is still arriving from the U.S. Postal Service, adding to the batches that must be fully reviewed and validated for tabulation. This incremental process also explains why results are periodically “updated” as more batches of ballots are tabulated.

In sum, counting ballots is more than just counting; it’s demanding work, with rigorous protocols to protect the integrity of the vote.

If you wonder why it seems like more ballots are “arriving,” or “showing up,” or why the process seems to take a long time, remember this:

States are trying to accept as many valid ballots from as many eligible registered voters as possible, in accordance with duly-implemented state laws and policies; and they are following methodical steps to verify that all requirements have been met. That’s a free and fair election that values both integrity and voter participation.

So, we all need to remain calm and carry on; democracy is at work here—just the way the Framers intended.

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