According to news, it will take two weeks to recount votes in Wisconsin. Finland has the same population as Wisconsin (5-6 million people), but the votes have been completely counted 4-5 hours after the voting has closed, and even the recount is finished the following day. Finland uses ballots on which voters write number with a pen, and they are all counted manually, so it feels to me it should take the same time, or a shorter time, to count votes in Wisconsin.

What explains this difference? Why does it generally take days or weeks to all the count votes in the elections in the USA? If this is because they have very few people counting the votes, why don't they put more people to that task?

  • 1
    Are you asking why it takes so long to do the initial count, on the day of the election, or why it takes so long to do a full recount after the fact? You seem to switch back and forth, and those are two very different things.
    – Bobson
    Nov 27, 2016 at 11:41
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    @Bobson If the initial count does not take a long time, then I am only asking about the recount. But it seems to me that even the initial count takes days, not hours.
    – user10742
    Nov 27, 2016 at 12:02

2 Answers 2


Each state in the United States (US) has its own rules. So the reasons for slow counts are specific to each state. In some states, e.g. California, votes can be cast by mail so long as they are postmarked by election day. The reason why California takes days more to count the votes is simply that they haven't collected all of them on election day. They wait several days after the election to start counting those votes (November 14th this year).

Vote by mail is also more complicated in that they have to also check for the possibility of multiple votes. And if there are multiple votes, they have to resolve which one counts. In some states, people are allowed to cast multiple votes with only the last one counting. In others, there is the possibility of fake votes.

Sometimes there are problems with the voting machines. Fixing them can take additional time and block a few precincts from finishing the final tally.

In some states, they allow provisional ballots to be cast. A provisional ballot means that the election officials were not able to validate that person's right to vote on election day. So they have to validate the voter afterwards. Until the voter is known to be valid, they can't validate the vote.

Some states allow same day registration. Since they don't really have the resources at the polling place to validate registration, they cast provisional ballots that have to be verified later.

Michigan has been slow to declare this year, but that seems to be because they were anticipating a recount. They preferred to wait until the results were final before declaring a result. They finished the actual counting the first week, possibly even the day after the election.

In recounts, it is within scope to challenge individual absentee (mail) and provisional ballots as invalid due to the person not being able to vote there. They can also argue over how to count ambiguous ballots.

Note that the Stein recount initiative expects lawyer fees to be as much as the recount costs. Lawyer fees are about arguing about how to count ambiguous ballots or ballots in ambiguous situations. They'll probably count the actual physical ballots multiple times during the course of the recount. They may even announce results and then start the process over again.

In your Finnish example, it's not clear to me if they are doing a real recount or just redoing the count they did the night previously. If they are just redoing the count, that's merely part of the counting process. Count once and then count again when you're wide awake. It's not what the US means when it refers to a recount, where both votes and voters are reverified as well as recounted. US recounts are not just physically counting ballots and double-checking math.

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    Other democracies (like Finnland) simply have clear voter id and automatic voter registration. Nov 27, 2016 at 17:48
  • In Finland the ballots are not connected to voters, so the votes are the only thing you can recount. If in USA the ballots are basically voter-vote pairs, that definitely explains why the recount is much more difficult.
    – user10742
    Nov 27, 2016 at 20:21
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    Only the provisional/absentee/mail ballots are voter/vote pairs. Other ballots are just votes. However, it's the slowest counts that restrict the overall speed.
    – Brythan
    Nov 27, 2016 at 22:11
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    Very informative answer, Brythan. Do you have a source (a media, or better, an official document of the state) that confirms that the state officials "check for the possibility of multiple votes} in the case of vote by mail? Thanks a lot.
    – Joël
    Nov 28, 2016 at 1:51
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    One thing I'm wondering as someone not familiar with the US voting system: If some ballots keep being linked to individual voters even after being cast, how do you maintain a secret vote?
    – Emil
    Nov 28, 2016 at 11:09

Brythan has a good answer. In addition, another factor which makes the counting process take so long in the United States, compared to other places in the world, is the sheer complexity of our elections. By which I mean, the number of individual questions placed on the ballot.

In the most recent Finnish election I could find, the 2015 parliamentary election, the voting instructions I found described a really simple ballot: write the number of the candidate you're voting for on a piece of paper, fold it in half, and put it in the ballot box.

I'm not as familiar with Wisconsin, but I can describe the ballot I had for the US presidential election in San Francisco, California.

As well as voting for US president, I was voting for the following offices:

  • US Senate (statewide)
  • US House of Representatives (districts)
  • California state Senate (districts)
  • California state Assembly (districts
  • San Francisco county council (called Board of Supervisors here) (districts)
  • San Francisco Board of Education (school district, county-wide)
  • San Francisco Community College Board (county-wide)

In addition, others in San Francisco were voting for a representative on the regional transit agency (BART) board, also district-based.

I pick out the offices which are district-based because each of them has a separately defined district, which may overlap and intersect in interesting ways. That's in part because they split the pie up in different ways - California has 53 districts for the US House of Representatives, 40 for the state Senate, and 80 for the state Assembly - and in part because the rules for drawing the districts are complex, taking into account not just population and existing political boundaries, but also racial composition (so as to prevent underrepresentation of minorities).

As a result, just the county of San Francisco - the geographically smallest county in California - had 38 different ballots, depending on where in the county you live. Each ballot counted towards a unique combination of the district-based offices I listed above.

And San Francisco is simpler than other places in the state, because the city and county governments are consolidated. Just across the bay, Alameda County, where Oakland is located, has 14 cities, as well as significant territory not in any city. Los Angeles County has 88 cities.

Getting all the votes counted and applied to the correct office is a highly complex process, made even more complex by the fact that elections are administered at the county level, with each county choosing its own voting technology. Most of the districts cross county boundaries, so the state government has to consolidate vote totals for those offices.

I also had the opportunity to vote on 24 county-wide, 1 regional, and 17 state-wide referenda, but that's small potatoes compared to the complexity of all the different district-based elections.

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