Much has been made of the recent election since Clinton seems to have won the "popular vote" while Trump won the vote for the electoral college.

I wonder, though, if this is actually true or if we can really definitively know.

Once a state determines that a candidate has an insurmountable lead, does it continue counting? If 1000 votes were cast within a state, why would it continue counting them once a candidate has won 501?

I realize that some states apportion their electors based on that state's popular vote and that all have some minimum threshold for a mandatory recount, but if candidate B won all of the remaining uncounted votes and still would not win more than Candidate A, what is the point of continuing?

  • 7
    Of course they continue to be counted! Just on principle alone, stopping it give the appearance of "your votes didn't count" to the remaining votes. And the measure of popular vote vs electoral vote is an important metric for citizens to know. Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 12:57
  • 2
    At last check (yesterday) the difference in popular vote (200k) was less than votes that weren't yet counted, so the answer is "unknown yet".
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 13:00

4 Answers 4


If 1000 votes were cast within a state, why would it continue counting them once a candidate has won 501?

How do they know that 1000 votes total were cast if they didn't count them? The precincts report the total votes cast at the same time as they report the totals for each candidate. This would require multiple reporting steps. First, every precinct would have to report the total votes cast. Then they'd have to make a separate report hours later on the vote count. And they'd have to receive a call stopping the vote counting in the middle to have any effect.

Note that the main holdup is often checking provisional and absentee ballots.

Also, even if the presidential race is a lock, they still need to process the other results. And most systems report both at the same time. So it doesn't actually save work to stop counting just one race. They need to stop all the races.

While this might save work in theory, people would get frustrated if their votes weren't reflected in the results from their local precinct. Why vote if your vote doesn't count?

As per the military: Every vote is counted.

  • 2
    It might also be worth to add that an exact vote count is interesting for planning ahead for future elections. Both parties and citizens should be interested in how decisive an election result really was so they know how important the next election will be.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 17:04
  • This sounds to me like the correct answer. I was approaching the question from a too narrow perspective. I was thinking of a single individual counting the votes for a single issue. I did not consider the rather practical reasons why all votes would have to be counted.
    – Michael J.
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 17:35
  • The term "to count ballots" typically means "to count how many ballots contain votes for each candidate", rather than simply "determine how many total ballots were cast". If election officials in a precinct start with ten boxes of 100 blank ballots, and when the polls close they have four complete boxes of blank ballots, 27 blank boxes, and 9 spoiled ballots, they could determine that at most 564 ballots were cast in that precinct without having to examine any of the ballots that were cast.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 5, 2020 at 23:19

Elections in the United States are rarely for a single issue. For example, the Presidential election also sees votes for Representatives, Senators, and often state and local office-holders. Since there are many issues on a single ballot, and since counting is usually automated, there's no reason to stop counting just because one candidate in one race has an insurmountable lead.

For ballots that can't be counted automatically, it depends on the rules. For example, in the state of Washington, write-in votes aren't counted unless the number of write-ins exceeds the leading candidate's margin of victory.

  • Yes, this is the correct answer. There's more than one race on the ballot.
    – DrSheldon
    Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 21:33

Yes, all votes are counted, whether they're cast in-person or by absentee ballot. It is a common misconception that absentee ballots are only counted during very tight races. This misconception stems from two things: one, absentee ballots are often counted for days after the election since many are coming from abroad; two, absentee ballots are often a small percentage of all voted ballots. Many elections have a clear winner, so the absentee ballots that are still being counted after election night don't affect the results as predicted right after the polls close.

See this Article on HAVA and California Law requiring all votes to be counted

HAVA, which is short for the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002. This lovely law dictates that every voter who casts a provisional ballot is entitled to find out from his/her county elections official if the ballot was counted. And if not, why not.

States also have their own laws governing mail-in ballots and how they’re counted


It would depend upon the jurisdiction and the election. Frequently absentee ballots are not counted when they will make no difference.

Keep in mind that most elections have multiple measures on the ballot. So it is often difficult to say a ballot will make no difference.

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