When will your ballot be counted in the 2020 election? A look at what goes into the tallying process

The exact procedures -- including deadlines -- depend on where you live.

November 4, 2020, 1:34 PM

The last day to vote in the 2020 general election was Nov. 3. But ballots may not be counted for several days, if not weeks, after that date, experts said.

Due to an anticipated record amount of mail-in voting this election season, combined with ballot counts that didn't start until Election Day in most states, election officials across the country could be overwhelmed in some cases.

Deadlines for receiving mail-in ballots also extend past Nov. 3 in several states, all but making it a given that votes will be recorded in the days or even weeks after the election.

The issue of mail-in ballot receipt deadlines is also fraught with legal challenges -- some of which were playing out in the days and weeks leading up to the general election. And President Donald Trump has repeatedly attempted to sow doubt on mail-in voting through false and conspiratorial claims about voter fraud.

Despite these new complexities, experts are confident voters' ballots will be counted this election season.

"There's every reason voters ... should be able to vote with confidence," Michael Waldman, president of the nonpartisan law and policy institute Brennan Center for Justice, told "Good Morning America" recently. "Their vote will be counted. It's a pretty clean and a pretty efficient system."

While some absentee ballots are ultimately rejected, it remains a very small percentage of the overall vote. In the 2016 general election, under 1% of absentee ballots were rejected, according to the Election Assistance Commission. In many states, voters can track the status of their absentee ballot online, and there also are processes to contest or cure absentee ballots that are initially rejected.

The exact procedures for counting ballots vary by state -- and sometimes even by county. But here's a general look at what it takes to tally up the votes of millions of citizens:

The process of processing ballots

PHOTO: An election judge wearing a protective mask prepares mail-in ballots to be scanned by the Montgomery County Board of Elections at a recreation center in Germantown, Md., Oct. 20, 2020.
An election judge wearing a protective mask prepares mail-in ballots to be scanned by the Montgomery County Board of Elections at a recreation center in Germantown, Md., Oct. 20, 2020.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Almost all states were able to start processing absentee ballots ahead of time in the days or weeks leading up to Nov. 3 under state law.

Processing absentee ballots generally includes steps short of tabulating them -- such as removing them from the envelope, confirming voter eligibility, matching signatures to what's on record and scanning them.

Some states have changed their processing rules due to the pandemic, allowing for earlier processing starts to accommodate the increased volume of absentee ballots. For instance, the battleground state of Michigan was able to begin processing the day before Election Day in cities with a population over 25,000 this year, instead of the day of.

A majority of states weren't expected to start counting ballots until the morning of Election Day or after polls closed. Most counting rules have remained unchanged this year, though some states have adjusted their timelines due to the pandemic to ease the burden of increased absentee ballots. For instance, the battleground state of Pennsylvania passed a law this past spring allowing clerks to start counting ballots at 7 a.m. on Election Day, rather than waiting until after the polls close.

With at least half the votes expected to be cast by mail, "it may take days, if not weeks, to count an expected record number of mail-in votes," the Brennan Center said in a recent report.

Since mail ballots take longer to count, the traditional election night is likely to stretch into election week, Poynter noted.

To that end, voters may need to have "a little bit of patience" this year, Waldman told "Good Morning America." All accepted absentee ballots are ultimately counted for every election.

"If it takes a little longer this year, it's not because it's chaos or misconduct, it's just how we know people are being careful and counting carefully," he said.

Find your state's policy: The National Conference of State Legislatures has state-by-state breakdowns of mail-in voting policies in effect for the 2020 general election, including when ballot processing and counting begins. The National Association of Secretaries of State also has a guide to deadlines for early and absentee voting. Since there could still be changes leading up to the election, it is recommended that you also check with your state election board's website for the latest information.

Changes -- and challenges -- to mail-in ballot deadlines

The last day to vote in-person in the general election was Nov. 3. Absentee and mail-in ballots also typically must have been received or postmarked by that date, if not earlier, depending on a state's rules. That left some room for mail-in ballots to be received after Election Day. In Washington State, mail-in ballots received as late as Nov. 23 are still valid, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3.

Changes to election policies this year due to the coronavirus pandemic include extended deadlines to receive ballots in some states, including Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where twice the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to overturn a state court ruling that absentee ballots should be counted as long as they are received by Nov. 6.

In North Carolina, the Supreme Court also twice declined to overturn a legal settlement reached by the state to extend the absentee-ballot receipt deadline to Nov. 12.

Wisconsin has faced similar challenges to a deadline extension. After a series of dueling court rulings over whether absentee ballots that arrive after Nov. 3 can count, the Supreme Court ruled that all ballots must be received by Election Day.

Similar extensions were also overturned in Indiana and Michigan.

Kate Shaw, a Cardozo law professor and legal consultant for ABC News, said that there could be renewed legal challenges if the count is close in battleground states after Nov. 3.

Find your state's policy: FiveThirtyEight has a state-by-state voting guide that includes mail ballot deadlines. The U.S. Vote Foundation also lets you search for your state's absentee ballot return deadlines. And again, it is recommended that you also check with your state election board's website for the most up-to-date information.

Certifying the results

Once ballots are collected, they are counted and verified, then made official, through processes typically referred to as canvassing and certification, according to Ballotpedia.

States also have set deadlines by which they must canvass and then certify election results -- and those can vary widely depending on where you live.

According to Ballotpedia, citing state laws, six states must certify election results within a week of the general election; 26 states and Washington, D.C., have a deadline between Nov. 10 and Nov. 30; 14 have a deadline in December, and four do not have deadlines in their state laws.

Among key battleground states, those deadlines range from Nov. 11 (Pennsylvania) to Dec. 1 (Nevada and Wisconsin). For potential battleground Texas, it is Dec. 3.

The last day for states to resolve contested election results -- what's known as the "safe harbor" deadline -- is Dec. 8, with the Electoral College set to meet in each state on Dec. 14 to formally cast their votes for the president.

Find your state's policy: See your state's certification deadline here.