As expected, there was no clear winner of the presidential race on election night. Because so many early ballots were cast, it will take some time to count them all.
But how long do we have to wait? Is there a time limit?
That is largely up to the individual states, but if you can remember back to the 2000 election, when it was so close in Florida that it took two recounts to finally pick a winner, the process can extend into early December.
In the 2020 election, there were a record number of early ballots cast, and in Pennsylvania -- a key battleground state -- they don’t start counting the early votes until the polls have closed on election day.
It’s possible that a presidential winner will be declared by the time you read this. Then again, that process could take two or three days, with Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania once again playing major roles in picking a winner.
Different states have different rules
One provision slowing the counting of mailed ballots is the deadline for submitting them. The provision says only that a ballot must be postmarked by Nov. 3. Ballots mailed on that day could take a couple of days to be delivered, even though the courts have ordered the Postal Service to expedite mailed ballots.
In Washington state, where it’s not particularly close, ballots received by Nov. 23 will be counted. In North Carolina and Pennsylvania, two states where it is close, ballots received by Nov. 6 will be counted.
Minnesota and Nevada, two other competitive states, will wait a few days longer -- until Nov. 10. In Ohio, ballots received by Nov. 13 with a Nov. 3 postmark will be counted.
A state’s electoral votes are based on its population, and a winning presidential candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes overall.
In many past elections, a candidate would declare victory based on news media projections about who won particular states, even though all the votes had not been counted. The projections were based on exit polls conducted at key precincts in key states, and they have been reliable.
They couldn’t do that this year because of the huge number of early ballots that were cast. Those voters couldn’t be questioned after casting their ballot -- and because there are so many of them, these ballots hold the potential to swing a close state from one candidate to the other.
It’s got to be over by Dec. 8
This year, Dec. 8 is the absolute cutoff for states to certify a winner. A federal law, the Electoral Count Act, posts a deadline for states to settle disputes, conduct any needed recounts, certify a winner, and send the candidate’s electors to the Electoral College six days later.
Oh yes, the Electoral College. These handpicked electors backing each state’s winning candidate meet in Washington to “elect” the president and vice president. Legally, however, they can vote for anyone.
Since the last election, several states have passed laws requiring electors from their states to vote for the candidate who nationally received the most popular vote, thereby setting the stage for a winning candidate’s electors possibly voting for the other candidate.