Election 2020: Why Is It Taking So Long to Count Mail-In Ballots?

The polls may be closed, but Americans will likely have to wait days to learn the winner of the 2020 presidential election. Although the tallying of votes is now underway in all states, it is expected that it could take days for officials to count mail-in ballots, with a clear winner for the race likely not to come until later this week. But why, exactly, is the process of counting these mail-in ballots expected to take so long?

The slow journey to reach a final result partially has to do with the fact that the 2020 election saw an increase in mail-in ballots. This increase was due to the coronavirus pandemic, with many states widening the eligibility for people to cast their vote by mail. The process of counting these ballots already requires more time and resources, with NPR noting that officials must verify signatures, open envelopes, separate ballots from secrecy sleeves, and sort them before they are fed through tabulators. As a result of the influx in mail-in voting, the counting of these ballots is expected to take longer than usual.

"Maybe you would normally receive 10 gifts and write thank-you notes for each of the gifts. Only now you're going to receive a thousand of them," Kathleen Hale, the director of Auburn University's Election Administration Initiative, explained to the outlet. "The technical steps aren't terribly complicated — there is simply a long sequence that has to take place."

The delay also has to do with the fact that in several key battleground states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — state laws prevented election officials from beginning to process absentee ballots until Election Day. In Pennsylvania, efforts to allow counties to begin processing ballots early collapsed, with a Pennsylvania House GOP spokesman saying Monday, according to Forbes, that the caucus has "no plans at this time to consider changes to the Election Code" because Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf "has not put anything on the table that can get through our caucus and has once again removed himself from the process of discussing the issue."

As a result, Pennsylvania counties weren't able to start counting mail-in votes until 7:00 a.m. on Election Day. NPR reports that officials are not expected to get through these ballots for several more days, according to Pennsylvania Secretary of state Kathy Boockvar, who said the "overwhelming majority of ballots" in her state would be counted "within a few days."


Officials in Wisconsin have stated that they expect to get through their absentee votes by Wednesday, with Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson predicting that her state would finish counting by Friday.