CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that absentee ballots in Ohio must be postmarked the day before Election Day in order to be counted -- if received by Nov. 13 -- and in Texas, absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day can be counted if received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 4.
Because of the pandemic, more voters are opting to cast their ballots by mail this year. While the expanded access and increased use of mail-in voting is good for voters, it does create hardships for already strained election officials in many states, including key battlegrounds.
And every ballot -- or nearly every ballot -- may need to be counted in the states where the presidential contest is expected to be the closest before anyone can responsibly make a projection on who won the state.
There are battleground states that were better equipped to handle the expected influx in mail-in ballots. Arizona and Florida, for example, already had a significant portion of the electorate that voted by mail prior to this year, and their state laws reflected that -- giving officials more time to process those ballots ahead of Election Day.
But others, like the three "Blue Wall" states President Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016, have laws that prevent election officials from processing returned absentee or mail ballots until the day of the election. Only one of those states, Michigan, has changed the timeline for this election, and the secretary of state still said, "It's not enough."
Nearly 40 million voters have returned mail ballots so far this election, according to the University of Florida's Michael McDonald, an expert on American elections who is tracking early voting numbers.
That's a lot of mail ballots to be processed and counted. Below is a guide to when absentee ballots can be processed in the slew of potentially competitive states, and when officials anticipate having results.
Voting by mail is very familiar to Arizona voters. The state maintains a permanent early voting list, and anyone on that list is automatically mailed a ballot every election the voter is eligible to vote in. Roughly 80% of Arizonans vote by mail normally and the state's laws around processing and counting these ballots reflects that.
Election officials can begin processing returned ballots immediately upon receipt. This includes signature verification, which is done by comparing the signature on the ballot to the signature in the voter's registration record, but also by comparing the signature to any other known election documents on file.
After signature verification is complete, officials can separate the ballots from their envelopes and prepare them for tabulation. Tabulation can begin 14 days before the election, after the completion of logic and accuracy testing for the relevant equipment.
While tabulation could begin two weeks ahead of Nov. 3, no results can be released until one hour after polls close on Nov. 3, and all ballots, including those sent by mail, are due by then. In Arizona, polls close at 7 p.m. local time, but if a voter is in line at that time, they are allowed to vote.
But this jump start on counting these ballots doesn't guarantee that Arizona's races will be called on election night. If mail ballots are returned to polling places, they won't be counted until after the in-person voters' ballots are counted. Also, any voter casting a mail ballot has up to five days after the election to correct or confirm their signature, should officials find their original signature unsatisfactory.
"As much as we all want to see the winner on election night in those close races, that's just not going to happen," Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said during a mid-October press conference, according to KTAR News. "We are focused on being accurate. We will be accurate. … These things take time."
In 2018, the Associated Press didn't call the race for Senate between Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema until Nov. 12 -- six days after the election. Also that year, the AP called the race for secretary of state too early, declaring Republican Steve Gaynor won when actually, Democrat Hobbs won by about 20,000 votes, according to the official canvass.
It's indicative of what's known as a "red mirage" or "blue shift" -- as more mail ballots and provisional ballots get counted, Republicans' leads fade, though it doesn't necessarily change the outcome. According to the U.S. Elections Project, for the states that register voters by party, Democrats are outpacing Republicans in returned mail ballots by about two to one.
That data suggests there's a good chance more states than Arizona will see a "blue shift." If it happens, remember that it's not a sign something has gone awry -- the vote is just still being counted.
In Florida, county election supervisors are able to conduct signature verification, which doesn't entail opening any envelopes, upon receipt of a voter's mailed ballot.
State law stipulates that canvassing of mail ballots cannot begin any earlier than 7 a.m., 22 days before the election, but Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, issued an executive order giving election supervisors even more time to process those ballots for both the primary in August and the general election, noting the anticipated increase in Floridians voting this way.
Beginning on Oct. 12, officials could canvass mail ballots more than two weeks earlier, beginning on Sept. 24, following the completion of logic and accuracy testing for tabulation machines and equipment.
This pre-election process includes everything through vote tabulation. Election workers will check voters' signatures if that hasn't been done already, open the mailing envelopes the ballots were sent in, mix the secrecy envelopes still containing the ballots to make it impossible to know which ballot came from which mailing envelope, put the ballot into a tabulation machine and then begin tabulating the results.
Those results, however, cannot be released until polls close. Election workers face getting slapped with a third-degree felony charge if they do.
While poll closing time is 7 p.m. EST in most of the state, the western part of the Florida panhandle is in the Central Standard Time zone, so the state will not be releasing results before 8 p.m. on Nov. 3. Individual counties, however, can report their results as soon as polls close in their respective county.
Under state law, by 7 p.m. the day before the election, county election supervisors are required to upload into the county's election management system, the results from all early voting and mail ballots that have already been canvassed and tabulated.
On Election Day, no later than 30 minutes past poll closing time, counties must report all tabulated early voting and by mail results to the Department of State. Following that initial report, counties are required to update results at least every 45 minutes until all results, excluding provisional ballots, are reported.
In an interview with the Miami Herald, Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee said she was "very optimistic that (Florida) will have preliminary election results on election night," specifically noting the jump start election officials have with canvassing mail-in ballots.
"Many are already doing that in earnest, so much of that work is completed before Election Day arrives," she said.
Lee also pointed out that all ballots, including mail ballots, must be received by election officials by the time polls close on Election Day.
"One of the consequences of that (deadline) is that we are in a much better position than many other states to understand our preliminary results on election," she said.
Unlike Arizona and Florida, there is no signature verification process in Iowa. When absentee ballots are received by county election officials, they are securely stored until it's time for processing.
Officials aren't able to start that until Oct. 31. Normally, officials can't start opening ballots until the Monday before an election, but Secretary of State Paul Pate issued an emergency directive, which was approved by state legislators, to let it begin earlier. Iowa opted to proactively mail every active registered voter an application to request an absentee ballot for this election.
Beginning Saturday, a bipartisan team of election workers open the outer return envelopes and remove the inner secrecy envelopes, which contain the ballots. Counting the ballots begins in one week -- the day before the election -- but no results can be released until after polls close at 9 p.m. local time statewide in Iowa.
Kevin Hall, a spokesperson for the secretary of state's office, said results will start being released an hour after polls close and absentee ballots will be the first reported on election night.
Iowa allows ballots received after Election Day to be counted, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 2, but Hall said they expect most ballots to arrive by Nov. 3.
Normally, only about 5% of voters cast absentee by mail ballots in Georgia, so the State Election Board passed an emergency rule to allow county election officials more time to process the expected influx of mail ballots this election.
While county election officials were able to verify signatures and voter registrations upon ballot receipt, normally, absentee ballots can't be further processed or opened until Election Day. But this year, beginning 15 days before the 2020 general election, officials were allowed to open returned absentee ballots, remove those ballots from both the outer and inner secrecy sleeve envelope, and scan the ballots using a ballot scanner machine.
At least three election workers must be present at all times during this processing and officials are prohibited from doing any tabulation of results until polls close at 7 p.m. on Nov. 3. At that point, tabulation is simply pressing a button.
During a news conference on Oct. 19, the first day counties could start processing absentee ballots, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger predicted that the timeline for races to be called in Georgia may not be too far off from what voters have become accustomed to.
"Many of the races won't be that close, so we'll have results on Tuesday night. It's really the ones that are really, really tight," Raffensperger said. "If the race is really close, it may take until Wednesday, until really we can say, this is who the winner (is)."
More than 1.7 million Georgians have applied to vote absentee by mail, and nearly 950,000 ballots have been returned and accepted so far. Every county has at least one drop box available for voters who don't want to mail back their ballots and ballots must be received by 7 p.m. on Nov. 3.
Upon receipt, municipal clerks in Maine can verify signatures on the outer envelopes of returned absentee ballots by matching the signatures on the related applications. After that, those ballots are locked in a ballot box and kept in a secure area until officials can start processing them further.
Because of an executive order issued by Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, clerks are allowed to start opening absentee ballots one week before the election instead of just three days, so that can start Tuesday for this election.
It's up to the clerks to decide how many days of absentee ballot processing they want to schedule within that pre-election time period, but the secretary of state must be notified of the municipalities' plans as the processing must be made made public for anyone who wishes to watch, Kristen Schulze Muszynski, the secretary of state's communications director, told ABC News.
"In the larger municipalities that are getting a great number of absentee ballots for this election, they may do several days of it. Some of the smaller towns might only need one day or a day and a half," Muszynski said.
During this time, election officials can open the outer envelopes, remove the ballots, flatten them and, if applicable, separate federal and state ballots, and ultimately prepare the ballots for tabulation.
About half of Maine's approximately 500 municipalities count ballots by hand, Muszynski said, but these tend to be "very small towns." The rest use optical scanners. These machines essentially take pictures of the ballots, and that data is loaded onto a proprietary memory stick. All memory sticks containing the processed absentee ballots are then combined with the memory sticks containing in person Election Day votes, and they are tabulated together after polls close on Nov. 3.
Towns have two days to get their election results to the secretary of state's election division in Augusta, so they aren't required to complete counting on election night. But, Muszynski said that most municipalities try to complete counting on election night, and it's usually smaller towns where the clerk decides to wrap for the night and start fresh the next morning.
As far as when it's finished, "one of the big deciding factors" is how many Maine voters -- especially those living in larger municipalities -- wait until Election Day to return their ballots, which is when clerks must receive them in order to count them.
"That is going to slow things down significantly because the processing of those ballots is obviously much more labor intensive than people walking in (to a polling precinct) and doing it themselves," Muszynski said.
Michigan clerks in the state's larger municipalities were given some relief -- but not much -- to process absentee ballots for the general election.
Under state law, absentee ballots cannot begin being processed until Election Day, but in early October, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, signed a bill that allowed clerks in cities with populations of at least 25,000 to begin opening and sorting ballots at 10 a.m. Nov. 2, the day before the election. They must stop at 8 p.m., so it's only a 10-hour head start on this process.
At the bill signing, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said the legislation was only "a small step," and that seven additional days would've been better.
"It's not enough. States like Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida give their local clerks significantly more time, in some cases weeks more, to begin this process, but here we are," she said.
Benson said that her expectation is that every ballot won't be counted until the Friday following the election.
"Now it may be sooner, but we want to manage those expectations," she said.
That timeline got more realistic after the Michigan Court of Appeals blocked a lower court's order extending the deadline for absentee ballots to be received within two weeks of Election Day, as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 2. All absentee ballots must be returned by poll closing time on Nov. 3 to be counted in Michigan.
Over 3 million absentee ballots have been requested in Michigan and 1.9 million have already been returned.
Minnesota was one of the first states to begin early in-person voting in the 2020 general election, with voters able to cast their absentee ballots beginning 46 days before Election Day.
In recent elections, approximately a quarter of all votes were cast via absentee ballots. In 2016, over 670,000 Minnesotans voted by absentee ballot. This election year, however, Minnesota has seen "an absolute shattering" of the previous record of people requesting an absentee ballot, according to Secretary of State Steve Simon. As of Oct. 23, 1,765,327 Minnesotans had submitted their absentee ballots and nearly 1.2 million were returned and accepted by election officials.
Each absentee ballot includes a secrecy envelope that contains the actual ballot, as well as the outer envelope, which has the voters' signature on it.
According to the Secretary of State's office, within five days of receiving a ballot, absentee ballot boards do some pre-processing of every ballot that arrives -- checking for a signature on the envelope, checking that the personal identifying information on the envelope matches the absentee ballot request application and verifying that the voter hasn't already voted.
Beginning Oct. 20, officials could start separating the outer signature envelopes from the secrecy envelopes containing the ballots. However, the votes themselves will not be tabulated and logged until election night, after the polls close at 8 p.m. All absentee ballots that have been processed up until that point, along with in-person votes, will be reported.
Voters in the North Star state don't need to have an excuse to vote absentee and, because of the pandemic, the state dropped the witness requirement for the general election.
A citizens' rights group had challenged the state law that requires absentee ballots to be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted, and originally won in court. But on Thursday night, just days before the election, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, ruling that absentee ballots must be received by the original deadline.
Simon warned the "last-minute change could disenfranchise Minnesotans" as the extension had been in place since August.
"I won’t let any Minnesota voter be silenced. My mission is now to make sure all voters know that a federal court has suddenly changed the rules, and that their ballot needs to be received by Election Day," he said in a statement.
In Nevada, while clerks can get a jump start on counting absentee ballots before Election Day, all ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 must still be counted -- which opens the possibility of delayed results from the Silver State.
In Nevada, a new law allows poll workers to start counting votes 14 days before the election, rather than waiting until Election Day.
But the state also counts mail-in ballots until Nov. 10 -- so long as all ballots are postmarked by Nov. 3 -- so ballots will continue to be counted in the days after the election.
All vote counting is overseen by a bipartisan counting board in each county and members of the public can also observe, according to the Nevada Secretary of State's office.
Vote by mail has become increasingly more popular this year in Nevada as a result of the state's decision to send all registered voters a ballot in the mail.
Nevada voters have already cast twice as many absentee ballots this cycle as they did in 2016. According to data released by the Secretary of State's office on Oct. 23, voters had cast about 43% of the total ballots cast in 2016, according to the United States Elections Project. That's 512,000 ballots cast since that date, including in-person early votes. About 212,000 people voted in-person, while around 300,000 voted by mail, according to McDonald. Democrats accounted for about 45% of the votes, while Republicans accounted for about 34%.
North Carolina was the first state to send out absentee ballots, mailing out its first batch on Sept. 4. Following that lead, county boards of elections have been processing returned absentee ballots for more than a month now, beginning on Sept. 29.
The late September start date is two weeks earlier than usual, thanks to a law passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in June.
County boards have to do all absentee ballot processing and scanning during scheduled absentee board meetings that are public, while still maintaining the secrecy of the ballots.
The meetings have been held at least every Tuesday starting Sept. 29 at 5 p.m. County boards were allowed to change the time of the Tuesday meetings and to schedule additional meetings to review absentee ballots, but that information needed to be publicized in a local newspaper by Oct. 4. Counties were encouraged by the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE) to hold additional meetings, or start them earlier on Tuesdays, to be able to process the expected influx in ballots.
There are preparatory steps that the county boards of election can delegate to the director of elections or staff, but during these meetings, the county boards of elections review the outer envelopes the ballots are returned in to check for "deficiencies." There is no voter signature verification in North Carolina, but voters are required to have one witness signature. If a voter is missing this, they must fill out a new ballot, with a witness signature, in order to have their vote count.
After the initial check, the boards are allowed to scan the approved ballots, a process that also occurs during these meetings. "Scanning" involves opening the outer envelopes, removing the ballots and scanning them into a tabulator, which reads the ballots, but doesn't actually print totals. No tabulation occurs until the day of the election, and the NCSBE is encouraging county election boards to begin counting by 2 p.m.
In order for scanning to occur, a majority of county board members must be present, including one of each political party. If a member from either political party isn't available, a member of the county political party's executive committee must be present.
While polls close at 7:30 p.m. on Election Day, results won't be reported until all polls close, Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the NCSBE, told ABC News. The NCSBE has the authority to extend poll hours for precincts where any issues caused that respective polling place to be unavailable for at least 15 minutes.
When results are reported, all early votes -- in person and absentee -- will be reported first.
Gannon said the board expects that most ballots will be counted on election night. The exceptions are provisional ballots and absentee ballots that are postmarked by Nov. 3, but arrive after Election Day. Under North Carolina state law, those ballots arriving by Nov. 6 will be counted.
An additional extension of six days was added and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit rejected Republicans' efforts to block that extension in a decision Tuesday.
But, the legal fight isn't over yet. Republican leaders in the state legislature have asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter and reduce the post-election return timeline to the original three days.
Beginning Oct. 6 -- the day after the voter registration period closed in Ohio -- county boards of elections were able to start processing returned absentee ballots.
When absentee ballots arrive, a team of bipartisan election officials open the envelopes and remove the ballots. A Democrat and a Republican election official will together verify the voter's information is accurate. After that, the ballot is stored in a secure room that must be opened by both a Democratic and Republican official.
The ballots are then removed from this room on Election Day for counting.
In Ohio, absentee ballots are often the first votes tabulated on election night, beginning when polls close, at 7:30 p.m. local.
Before scanning and tabulating the ballots, another bipartisan team of election officials double checks that the voter's information on the ballot and on the ballot envelope match. Then the absentee ballots are scanned and the tabulations are sent for printing via a closed network. The board of elections director reviews these before sending off to the secretary of state's office.
Secretary of State Frank LaRose has posted a video explainer of "the life of an absentee ballot" on his Facebook page.
According to a directive from LaRose, county board of elections are required to report to his office how many absentee ballots were issued but not returned by the close of polls on Nov. 3, as well as how many provisional ballots were issued on Election Day and during early in-person voting.
This allows the secretary of state to do something its office has never done before.
According to the video LaRose posted to Facebook, in addition to reporting candidates' vote tallies on election night, the state will also report the number of outstanding absentee ballots and provisional ballots.
Under state law, absentee ballots postmarked by the day before Election Day will be counted as long as they arrive by Nov. 13, 10 days after the election. So this new feature could be a significant help for calling races more quickly because if the number of outstanding ballots is less than the margin between two candidates, it's impossible for the losing candidate to make up ground.
Election officials can only process mail ballots as soon as the law allows, and in Pennsylvania, that means they can't begin opening returned mail ballots in any way until the polls open on Election Day.
Because of a law enacted in November 2019, any registered voter in the battleground state can vote by mail, and during the June primary, there was a 17-fold increase in voters casting ballots by mail statewide.
The massive influx in mail ballots combined with the inability to process them until Election Day left county election officials counting these ballots for days. In Philadelphia, the state's most populous county, officials didn't even start counting ballots until the Wednesday after the election because staff had to prioritize Election Day responsibilities. They were still counting two weeks after the primary.
But election officials, including Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar, understand the want for results quickly in the state decided by just 44,000 votes in 2016, and have been preparing to do that, despite the legal limitation they're up against as one of the few states that doesn't allow mail ballot pre-processing.
Despite election officials asking the state legislature for months now to change the law around when counties can begin processing these ballots, they have not.
"It's so rare that you have a circumstance like this where you have an obvious solution that's legislative, it costs nothing, it completely solves the problem and it has zero negative side effects," Boockvar told Spotlight PA.
In an interview with ABC News Live Friday, Boockvar said that since the primary, counties have upped their staff, bought new equipment and implemented best practices in order to deliver timely results.
"The largest counties are actually planning on counting 24/7 until they get the counting done, so that we can ensure that not only is every ballot counted accurately, but counted accurately as quickly as humanly possible," she said.
That is the counting plan in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties.
Kevin Feeley, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia City Commissioners, told ABC News that the city will begin counting at 7 a.m. on Nov. 3 and expects to have a significant number of ballots counted by the time polls close at 8 p.m.
Upon receipt at the elections office, mail ballots go through a sorter machine that timestamps their arrival and sends a notification to the respective voters so they know their ballot was received.
But on Election Day is when the real processing begins. First, the ballots go through an "extractor" machine, which removes the ballot from within its inner secrecy envelope -- where it must be to be counted. Any "naked ballot" will be put to the side and not counted. The machine then takes the ballot, which is folded, out of the secrecy envelope, and then unfolds it so the ballot is flat. The extractors can process about 12,000 ballots per hour.
Then, the ballots get fed into a scanner, which does the tabulation. Feeley said the scanners can handle about 32,000 ballots per hour.
While Feeley said he couldn't give an exact timeline for when the city will be done counting, he did say they think that "a large majority of the ballots will be counted" by Nov. 6, which is the current deadline for mail ballots to arrive, as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3 or presumed to have been in the mail by that day.
Boockvar, in a press conference Wednesday, agreed with that estimated timeline, saying she expects "the counties will have processed the overwhelming majority of ballots" by Nov. 6.
Despite the extended deadline to return those ballots, she still encouraged voters to play it safe, and cast their ballot before or on Election Day.
A week ago, the Supreme Court rejected state Republicans' request to block the three-day mail ballot extension, but it is still possible that post-election litigation could seek to disqualify ballots arriving after polls close on Nov. 3 in Pennsylvania.
While Texas has seen incredible turnout so far, the overwhelming majority of ballots cast have been by in-person, early voters, as it is one of just five states where voters still need an excuse beyond having concerns about the coronavirus to request an absentee ballot. This means it will have fewer mail ballots, comparatively, to process than states where anyone can vote by mail.
When counties can begin processing mail ballots depends on how large the county is, according to a memo from the state's director of elections, Keith Ingram.
Counties with populations of 100,000 or more can convene its early voting ballot board (EVBB) to start processing and qualifying mail ballots beginning the 12th day before the election, which for this election was Thursday. Counties with populations less than 100,000 can begin processing and qualifying ballots after the polls close on the last day of in-person early voting, which is this Friday.
When the EVBB meets, they will look at whether the outer envelopes of returned absentee ballots are "properly executed"; check that the signatures on the original application and the return envelope are from the respective voter, not somebody else; and ensure the voter's application stated one of the accepted reasons to vote absentee.
If a ballot is accepted, the EVBB will separate the ballot from its outer envelope to be counted by the board or at a central counting station.
No results can be released until polls close on Election Day, but counties can begin scanning ballots during the respective processing period as long as their machines can do that without tabulating the results.
For the actual counting, counties with populations of 100,000 or more can start doing this on Friday, after the polls close on the last day of early voting. For the smaller counties, absentee ballots can't be counted until the polls open on Election Day. Regardless of county size, no results can be released until polls close.
In Texas, absentee ballots are due by 7 p.m. local time -- when polls close -- on Election Day, unless they are postmarked by that time. Officials can count those ballots if they arrive by 5 p.m. on Nov.4 . Any ballots received by the time polls close on Nov. 3 must be counted election night, and these ballots will be included in results on that night. There are a few exceptions for specific categories of voters that allow late arriving absentee ballots to be counted.
In Wisconsin, poll workers will be doing double duty on Election Day.
Because vote counting is a publicly observable process, poll workers can only begin to count absentee ballots beginning at 7 a.m. local time on Nov. 3, when anyone is invited to come and watch. Poll workers can check the signatures on the outer envelopes and do sorting ahead of Election Day, but they cannot open returned absentee ballots until that morning.
In Wisconsin, it's "double the amount of work, same amount of time," Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe said, because poll workers will be counting absentee ballots while hosting a regular, in-person Election Day.
"So it may take a little bit longer, but our communities are adding resources to the process to make sure that they're able to do that as efficiently as possible," she added.
There also might be reporting delays in certain jurisdictions between the in-person and the absentee vote tallies being posted. One could take longer and come in later, so voters shouldn't be confused if they see a big jump in numbers when that happens.
As is the case most places, the influx of absentee ballots this year in Wisconsin is immense. Voters have already cast upwards of 41% of the total votes cast in the state in 2016 through absentee voting, whereas historically only 6% of voters cast absentee ballots in past elections. That number is expected to rise; 80% of voters cast absentee ballots during Wisconsin's most recent election in August.
"What I've been telling people is that basically throw out all the old records, there's nothing that compares to what's going on now," Reid Magney, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, told reporters during a press conference on Thursday.
Clerks have their work cut out for them, as they have to continue to count ballots through the night until there are none left to count.
After the polls close at 8 p.m., the process remains open to the public as clerks count votes and machines tabulate to eventually produce a report.
Then, municipalities turn the results over to the county, which post the unofficial results on their website.
"I'm just unbelievably proud of our local election officials and everything that they've done this year to prepare," said Wolfe. "I think they're ready."
Update: This story was updated to reflect a court decision in Minnesota.
ABC News' Cheyenne Haslett, Arielle Mitropoulos, Kendall Karson and Olivia Rubin contributed reporting.