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I realize that political parties and their candidates would like to know what the vote count is as soon as possible after the polls close. But I'm also aware that vote count is not finalized for at least 10 days after the polls close (when the final deadline for Overseas ballots occurs). Furthermore, in close races, the vote count may not be finalized until recounts are finished.

Is there some other reason that, beside candidate's curiosity and anxiety , that vote counts have to be finalized prior to 10 days post election.

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    Who says it is important? As long as it's done before the EC meets, there's no rush, so I take exception with "why". – dandavis Aug 5 at 19:33
  • @dandavis ..will fix that in an edit-thanx – BobE Aug 5 at 19:42
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    @JCAA, the issue in Florida was poor ballot design (buttery-fly, punchout selecton) rather than issue of mail-in. Actually in Florida today there is a lot of in-person voting that begins well in advance of Nov 3. What's more, signature verification for mailed ballots can begin 22 days before Nov 3, so that on election day, the ballots have been all prepared to be scanned. The tabulating machines used by county election boards typically tally 200-500 ballots per minute (1200-3000 ballots per hour). Some manufacturers of optical ballot tabulating claim processing speed of 6000 ballots per hour. – BobE Aug 5 at 21:42
  • Where do you get the 10 day limit? In Washington, it is generally much longer (like, a month), but I believe sometimes certified earlier. – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 7 at 14:28
  • @AzorAhai--hehim The deadline for arrival of overseas ballots ( I believe by Federal law) is 10 days. These ballots, provided they are postmarked by election day, are required to be included in the vote tally. Consequently, the earliest that a state could certify the vote count is 10 days (unless that state is certain there are no overseas ballots that are unaccounted for). I didn't mean to suggest that certification is required at the 10 day marker, only that 10 days is the earliest that a state could/would practically certify. – BobE Aug 7 at 15:32
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No, there is no particular reason that election results need to be presented quickly. There are legal deadlines that prevent election results from being excessively delayed — for instance, electors have a bit over a month to cast their votes in a presidential election — but that is hardly 'quick' by modern standards. In the 19th century, the general populace might not have known the results of a national election until December or January; slow communication methods presented any faster dissemination. This is part of the reason that the new president isn't sworn in until January (originally March); this gave the population time to learn of the results and prepare for the inauguration.

Modern US citizens tend to have shorter attention spans and to demand immediate gratification — functions of our mass-media-driven world — and Trump is currently working on those anxieties to produce fear and confusion (a typical part of his political strategy). But in the end, the election process will carry on at its own, slow, inexorably bureaucratic pace, and we'll be forced to wait and see.

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    @ to be a bit more specific, Inauguration day was moved from March to January in 1937, supposedly because communication methods had improved in the 20th Century – BobE Aug 5 at 21:15
  • This is absolutely not true for US Presidential elections. There are Constitutionally- and statutorily-mandated timelines. The term of the President expires at noon on Jan 20, 2021, and Electors must meet on "the first Monday after the second Tuesday in December" to cast their votes. There is also a "safe harbor" hard deadline in the Electoral Count Act of 1887 - if a state does not meet that deadline all that state's electoral votes are subject to challenge. Electoral votes will be, by law, counted on January 6, 2021. If we can go to the grocery store, we can vote in person. – Just Me Aug 7 at 13:55
  • @JustMe What part isn't true? You just said the same thing, except with dates. – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 7 at 14:26
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    @AzorAhai--hehim: JustMe and I have a friendly tendency to squabble. I think he's interpreted my statement that there's no need for results to come quickly as a claim that there are no deadlines at all. That's pretty clearly a misinterpretation (willful or otherwise), but it might be worth expanding my answer to clarify it. I'll think about it on my jog. – Ted Wrigley Aug 7 at 15:25
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    @JustMe If a month is quick for the US, what do you consider a normal time frame for certifying results? – Azor Ahai -- he him Aug 7 at 16:18
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Not really. This is especially true with vote-by-mail. According to Nate Silver, we could have an election week instead of an election day because of the mail-in ballots and taking time to count. I think that they will try to hurry it to maintain public confidence.

However, results need to be delivered by the time the Electoral College meets.

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  • it may be semantics, but (due respect to Silver), Election day is election day. Silver is correct that the tally may not be known for a week, however mail-in ballots (or absentee ballots) are counted as a function of the prevailing law in each state. For example in Ohio , ballots received by mail can be counted everyday as they are received. Other states legislate like NY provide that the tally of mailed ballots can only begin after the public polls close. – BobE Aug 5 at 21:24
  • The election has started: neonnettle.com/news/… – JCAA Aug 12 at 22:08
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It is important (almost mandatory) that the election result is known by the time at which the constitution requires the newly elected body to constitute itself. In the US case, the President is sworn on the 20th January and the new congress constitutes itself on the 3rd of January according to the 20th Amendment so by these days the result should really be known. In the case of the presidential vote, the date the electors meet in the states (mid-December) might actually be the more important legal deadline.

Other states or their sub-levels may have different constitutional or legal requirements. For example, Bavarian communal elections must happen in March and any runoff elections must happen exactly 14 days after the first election – which immediately implies that the vote tally for the offices of mayor and Landrat must be known soon enough that the runoff can be held after 14 days. Furthermore, town and regional councils must constitute themselves in May so those tallies must also be known by that date. (Incidentally in the 2020 local election one result was only finalised days before the council first met – which was important because the composition of said council depended on a couple of disputed votes. Ultimately, the recount tipped the tally in favour of the person who had not been elected according to the provisional numbers.)

None of these legal dates are exceptionally close to the actual voting date though; I believe the 14 days span between first and runoff elections is close to the tightest it can get. Thus, there is no requirement for the vote count to be known ‘very soon’ (within a day or two). In fact, look no further than to the 2000 US presidential election which hinged on the result of Florida which in turn wasn’t decided until 12th December. (The results of the other 49 states and DC gave neither candidate a majority without Florida.)

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Shorter vote counting times can lead to shorter lame duck periods (over time).

Until 1937, inauguration day in the US was in March, about 4 months after the election. This allowed time for votes to be tabulated and reported, which took more time given the technological limitations of the day. One downside to this was the lengthy lame duck period between the election and inauguration, creating the potential for ineffectual or erratic leadership. Over time, as vote counting became speedier (among other things), this lengthy lame duck session became unnecessary, resulting in the 20th amendment, which moved inauguration day to January. In this case, improvements in vote counting times contributed to a real change in how political power is wielded between an election and inauguration.

The upper limit of vote counting times is naturally the lower limit of the lame duck period - you shouldn't schedule an inauguration day any earlier than you're certain to have the final count. If votes could reliably be tabulated on election day itself, it would be possible to move inauguration day to the very next day, eliminating lame duck tenures entirely. I'm not suggesting this would be a worthwhile or desirable endeavor, but reducing lame duck sessions is a reasonable goal of tabulating votes in a timely manner, which extends beyond simple curiosity or anxiety about the result. How much one might want to reduce the lame duck period is another matter for debate (4 months to 2 months seems reasonable to me, 2 months to 1 day perhaps not).

For any scheduled election/inauguration, however, there is no real benefit to tabulating votes immediately or the day before inauguration - so long as the tally is ready in time, it doesn't matter if it's early. For the upcoming election, finalizing the vote count earlier than 10 days post-election would have no immediate benefit.

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  • nit-picky I realize, but your "If votes could reliably be tabulated on election day itself, it would be possible to move inauguration day to the very next day" should actually be "when the electoral college votes are tabulated. (Recall that the population doesn't actually vote for presidential office, the population votes for electoral college delegates. – BobE Aug 7 at 15:42
  • @BobE True, I'd assumed that if the whole country's votes are tabulated in one day, the electoral votes would be similarly quick. I learned today that the electoral college never actually meets, but submits votes by a slower mail-in system, which are later tabulated by Congress almost 2 months after the election. – Nuclear Wang Aug 7 at 15:55
  • @NuclearWang The end-of-term dates for the President, Vice President, Senators, and Representatives are set in the Constitution's 20th Amendment: "The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin." – Just Me Aug 7 at 15:58
  • The cynic in me says that no elected officials would approve a change that would eliminate two+ months of having the opportunity to make consequence-free decisions. – Just Me Aug 7 at 15:59
  • @JustMe But that's exactly what the 20th Amendment did, though - before that, inauguration was in March. Some members of Congress effectively passed an amendment that not only eliminated 2 months of their own lame duck session, but reduced their own term lengths by 2 months overall. The amendment also took effect in the election cycle after it was ratified, so Congresspeople not in the middle of a term were only limiting the lame duck session of future officials and not necessarily themselves. – Nuclear Wang Aug 7 at 16:12

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