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At the UK General Election in 2015, the constituency of Houghton & Sunderland South, declared its result in under 49 minutes, from close of polling. enter image description here 

Polling stations at UK parliamentary elections always operate from 7.00am to 10.00pm. This proud winner, Bridget Phillipson M.P., displays the time at which her result was declared 48mins and 41seconds, from close of polling. It is the all-time record*.

The 650 parliamentary constituencies have an average electorate of 60 to 70,000 people. The overall result, for the whole country, and which party is to form the next government, even in close contests is almost always known by dawn. (In 2019 535 of the 650 constituencies had declared by 6.00am. However the unitary nature of the British electorate means that often with a dozen results in, the final overall state of the parties can easily be predicted - the swing being relatively consistent.)

The idea of counters going home at 9.00pm, to recommence the next day, as apparently happened in some US states, would be unthinkable.

And it is done entirely transparently under the view of representatives from all political parties, TV cameras etc. When all votes are counted the person in charge of the count - the Returning Officer - stands on a stage, flanked by all the candidates and declares the numbers of votes cast for each. There is no need, for a TV network to "call" a result. Everyone awaits the RO's declaration of the count.

The following link gets you to videos of count declarations. Where the seat being declared is that of a senior member of the government or the opposition it regularly attracts a number of joke candidates, and candidates who want to obtain publicity for their cause. The UK has a number of parties with names like "The Monster Raving Looney Party", and characters like "Lord Buckethead". They add a bit of colour and fun to election night, and ensure we do not take ourselves too seriously. The link shows first a declaration involving former Prime Minister, Theresa May, and then one for current PM, Boris Johnson.

Vote declarations

Voting is manual with a pencil cross on a piece of paper. All counting is by hand. It is rare for there ever to be any suspicion of irregularity. This seems like quite a contrast to the much slower and more laborious process in parts of the US, particularly Pennsylvania.

Where exactly does the problem lie in the US?

  • I fully recognise that this is not a representative example. Because of its rivalry with neighbouring Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sunderland employed students who literally ran the ballot boxes from the taxis to the counters. However even in very close elections such as 1964, the two elections of 1974 and 2010 - the parliamentary numbers were almost precisely known by about 4.00am - six hours after closing time. In 2010 it then took several days to form a government because David Cameron was forced to take the Liberal Democrats into coalition. And prior to that there were abortive negotiations between the Lib Dems and Labour.
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please use comments to suggest improvements to the question. If you want to discuss further, please use the chat room. – JJJ Nov 5 '20 at 20:19
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    You might've used a video clip with the Monster Raving Loony Party... Like this one: youtube.com/watch?v=SZxZlSZrPeQ – Oscar Bravo Nov 6 '20 at 13:24
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    @OscarBravo Great. I was looking for one of those. Thanks Perhaps we should explain to our American cousins that in seats where an important figure e.g the Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition etc is standing - it attracts all kinds of colourful comic candidates. It is one of the great features of British elections which helps prevent people taking the whole thing too seriously. Pity they don't have declarations in the US. They do need to bring a bit more humour to the matter I feel. – WS2 Nov 6 '20 at 15:11
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    @OscarBravo The clip you provide is of course of the count in Theresa May's (the then PM) constituency. And she has to suffer the indignity of having her name read out with that of Lord Buckethead etc. – WS2 Nov 6 '20 at 15:17
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    that's a thesis, which starts by failing to mention sunderland co had 25,000 ballots to count, and that they probably weren't an average, the average in the UK takes all day, with some city councils having a million votes. Most US states take 1 day too. with teh slowest taking 2-3 days usually, except in pandemic times, masks, precautions, mail in votes, staying home, distancing, all adds up. – aliential Nov 7 '20 at 2:43
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  1. Mail-in voting and provisional ballots: In many states, mail-in votes are allowed to arrive well after election day, provided they are postmarked on or before election day. Voters who cast a provisional ballot on or before election day are also given an opportunity to "cure" it. In practice, this usually consists of going to the county registrar and showing their ID within the next few days after the election, but specific requirements vary by state. It is physically impossible to count ballots which have not arrived, and it is similarly impossible to get an accurate count of provisional ballots until you know which ones are valid. Because of the pandemic, 2020 has seen unprecedented mail-in voting compared to previous election cycles. However, nearly every election cycle sees a significant number of late ballots from members of the armed forces and Americans living abroad. Provisional ballots are a relatively recent development, but they are not unusual either.

    In most election cycles, these ballots are not sufficient to change the outcome, which is why (for example) 2016 was called so early compared to 2020. But 2016's results were not official on election day. For example, California formally ascertained its electoral college appointments (pursuant to 3 USC 6) on December 12, 2016, which is well over a month after election day (November 8). Of course, everyone already knew that Hillary Clinton had won the state, but it wasn't official until that document was filed.

  2. Sheer scale: 70,000 people is rather small by American standards. You might see a similar number of votes cast in a smaller suburban or exurban county. For the big counties that materially affect the outcome of the race, they typically have hundreds of thousands to millions of votes to count. Even with a large number of people, optical scanners, etc. working continuously around the clock, this process will take time. And then, of course, at some point you're going to want official results. To do that, the counties have to report upwards to the state, because electoral votes are allocated at the state level. The state has to wait for every single county to count and report every single vote. If the race is close, the state may then have to conduct a recanvass or recount, which takes even longer.

  3. State law variations: Florida, for example, counted its vote quite fast this year, reporting most of its unofficial results within hours of the polls closing. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, took much longer. This is in part because Florida law allows counties to begin processing mail-in ballots before election day, and Pennsylvania law does not.

  4. Complexity of ballots: In most countries, you vote for one or two things at a time. In the US, we routinely have all of the following on the ballot at once:

    • US President, in 1/2 of (federal, two-year) election cycles.
    • US Senate, in 2/3 of election cycles. Occasionally, two seats will be up at once (for a special election which coincides with the regular election), which is the case in Georgia this year.
    • US House, in every election cycle.
    • State Governor, in some election cycles (varies by state).
    • State legislature, in some election cycles (varies by state). Bicameral in all states except Nebraska.
    • Other state officials such as state Attorney General (varies by state and election cycle).
    • One or more ballot initiatives, in states that allow them. Some states also have county and municipal ballot initiatives.
    • Municipal officers such as mayors, sheriffs, city councilors, etc.

    Some states do state and municipal elections in "off-year" (odd-numbered) elections, which fall between federal election cycles. But most states don't.

  5. Differing priorities and budget: The target date for certification of final results in 2020 is December 8. This is the last day on which a state's electoral college votes will be presumed lawful (by Congress, which will count said votes in January), and so that is the date that most states shoot for. Trying to count millions of ballots faster than that would probably be doable, but it would cost more, and it's not clear how a faster count would materially benefit the residents of a given state. California routinely takes a month to count its ballots, but the residents don't seem particularly upset about that.

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    To add to your first point, mail-in ballots from military and expats living overseas aren't due until a full week after election day. As a data point for your fourth point, my ballot this year had 57 separate races on it (federal, state, county, and city level positions, plus misc. other things). – bta Nov 6 '20 at 0:20
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    @Kevin :O Combining multiple elections on the same ballot seems to be asking for trouble, as that means counters can't pile up ballots according to who or what those ballots voted for. I've never seen that when I participated in multiple elections on the same day. That would seem to be the overwhelming reason why it's so laborious. I can't imagine how it cuts down on admin costs either, as it means you can't even reuse the same presidential election ballot state-wide. I wonder if other states in the US do like CA here or if some have different ballots for different elections. – gerrit Nov 6 '20 at 8:02
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    (I wonder if this also explains why many US voting places appear to have long queues, something quite rare in Europe. With such complicated ballots it's going to take more than 20 seconds to fill one.) – gerrit Nov 6 '20 at 8:50
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    It is absolutely incomprehensible to me that the ballot for the presidential election isn't on a separate sheet. Even if the rest were all combined this alone would simplify the counting process immeasurably. Adding this kind of complexity which would clearly create more chances for confusion and spoiled ballots must be by design to make voting harder. – Chris Cooper Nov 6 '20 at 9:07
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    There are examples in Europe for multiple votes on a single date and really complicated ballot sheets, and yet reliable preliminary results are available the next morning. – Lykanion Nov 6 '20 at 11:22
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It doesn't need to be fast

While the popular vote is important, the electoral college will "meet" in mid-December to decide the winner. There is no pressing need within the system to determine the results of all 55 portions before that point. There's more than a month before the popular election results need to be finalized and that's why states don't necessarily count mail-in ballots immediately; for example, as mail-in ballots in Washington just need to be postmarked by or on election day they intentionally wait several days to count them.

The actual vote that matters is the vote of the electoral college, the group that actually elects the president. Those votes are sent to Congress in mid-December. The new Congress then announces the winner of the election or decides the winner if they need to, only a few days after they themselves take office. States taking their time with votes does not slow the election down and if states counted all votes immediately and instantaneously it would not speed the election up.

The election is far more complicated than it looks to casual observers: there are two sets of elections each time, the national election to elect the electors and the election by the electoral college. If the electoral college does not elect candidates with a majority then the selection of president and VP falls to Congress. In either case, the final results are announced by the new Congress a few days later; the old Congress is not involved due to the 20th amendment so the earliest a winner could be announced is in January.

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    You hinted at it but I think explicitly mentioning that the presidential election is an indirect vote and that the electors of the electoral college are real people who really do go and cast the vote would help make this more clear. – Captain Man Nov 5 '20 at 19:54
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    For the comparison point of the UK system, the point the vote is declared for a constituency is the point at which that MP becomes an MP for the purposes of forming a government. In the case of a majority win, it is a matter of hours between the majority of constituencies being declared for a party (even if not all have declared yet), and a new government being formed. How long it takes to count votes significantly impacts when a new government will take office. – user1937198 Nov 5 '20 at 20:26
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    @WS2 It simply isn't how it works in the US. The UK has a separate political system structured much differently. The national vote happens on a decided Tuesday in early November. The electoral college meets on a decided Wednesday in mid December to cast the real vote. Congress then announces the results in January. There is no way for the process to go faster or slower with regards to vote counting. Perhaps if the national vote were scheduled in December then comparisons between the US and UK could be meaningful. – gormadoc Nov 5 '20 at 21:02
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    This answer tries to make it sound obvious; it's not. I grew up in Argentina, a country that is definitely not an example of nice politics. System is similar to American: elections every two years, president every other election, house members every election, senators on a 2/3 cycle; on top of that elections often include provincial governors, provincial house and senate, city mayor, city council. Everything on paper ballots. And voting is compulsory. Even then, election results are always known within a few hours of polls closing – Martin Argerami Nov 5 '20 at 22:43
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    @Luaan - IIABDFI. First thing you should learn if you want to be a good software engineer in an actual company (as opposed to what they teach someone in college). This applies to real life too. "Ugly code" does not mean "Broken". "Doesn't run faster than 10 minutes" does not mean "Broken" for an overnight batch process. etc... – user4012 Nov 6 '20 at 11:52
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It actually isn't laborious.

U.K. observers have to realize several things first of all:

  • Using Sunderland as an example is stacking the deck. Sunderland isn't even a fair comparison to most ballot counting in the rest of the United Kingdom, which takes several hours overnight to well into the next day in most Parliamentary constituencies.
  • Where "direct-recording" electronic voting machines are used, the count is made on the fly in the voting machine itself as ballots are cast, and the totals are known effectively immediately at the close of the polls. This is a lot faster than in the United Kingdom, even Sunderland. (It's also controversial from a security perspective, which is well beyond the scope of this answer.)
  • Even the modern trend of going back to paper ballots and using optical readers to count is fast. Waynesboro county, VA had primary election results in 35 minutes back in 2016, using an optical reader and paper ballots.
  • The U.S. has got the U.K. beaten when it comes to this sort of thing. The "Midnight voting" towns in New Hampshire have populations in the hundreds or even tens and can be counted very quickly, even with hand-counting.

The complexities of 2020:

  • There are a lot more paper ballots this time around.
  • There are a lot more mail-in ballots.
  • Mail-in ballots can be optically read, but it takes (from my observation of people doing it in the background of TV news reports in November 2020) about half a minute to open, visually inspect, and stack up one ballot, making it ready to be read.
  • Only some states use direct-recording voting machines for in-person voting.

The "Midnight voting" towns exemplify a larger point, moreover, that counts are not done on a "constituency" level. Things vary from state to state, but in some states every individual municipality or county does its own counting, and this is in some places an order of magnitude, or even two orders, more work than the U.K..

U.K. Parliamentary constituencies range from 55 to 113 thousand people, with a mean size of ~73 thousand. In the 2019 U.K. General Election:

  • The Isle of Wight, the largest constituency, needed to count >74,442 ballots.
  • Liverpool West Derby had to count a mere >43,989 ballots, and wasn't nearly the smallest.

In contrast:

  • Dixville Notch, NH needed to count just 12 ballots this year.
  • Fulton County, GA needed to count >438,751 ballots in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, ten times the number of Liverpool West Derby.
  • Los Angeles County, CA needed to count >3,544,115 ballots in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, almost ten times that in turn.

If you think that this is big, go and look at India.

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    Re your first paragraph. You will see from this site that 535 of the 650 constituencies, in UK 2019, had declared by 6.00am the following morning. In practice it doesn't matter that much because being a unitary country, with a dozen results in, the overall position (unless it is very close) can be predicted. The "swing" is quite consistent. – WS2 Nov 5 '20 at 20:31
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    Small technical correction: Waynesboro is a city, not a county. It reports separately from Augusta County because cities in Virginia are technically not part of the counties that surround them. – Nobody Nov 5 '20 at 21:58
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    The size of a county/city/other division is not really an argument – you just need to divide it up (e.g. count at each voting station), and have enough people for counting the postal votes. (That's how it's done in Germany.) – Paŭlo Ebermann Nov 6 '20 at 0:36
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    In the UK counts are performed by the relevant local authority (e.g. city/town/district council in England), rather than specifically on a constituency basis. These vary significantly in size, such that many are only counting one constituency, whilst others (e.g. Birmingham, Northern Ireland) count 10+. Declarations in Birmingham are no slower than elsewhere. – stuart10 Nov 6 '20 at 11:36
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    @PaŭloEbermann I disagree there. The US also does that - we have precincts that are typically quite small, mostly for local elections - but two things. One, the larger the number of precincts makes it more likely to have one precinct be slow; and two, mail-in ballots, which are collected centrally for good reasons, can be very large, such as in the case of PA which is a state of over 9 million voters. – Joe Nov 6 '20 at 22:33
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There are technical reasons for this detailed well in Kevin's answer, but there's an undergirding philosophical position that provides an essential context to questions like this:

We're talking about the United States of America.

Back in ye olden times 13 relatively autonomous polities decided to form a union to promote their collective interests and they remained largely autonomous until almost the 20th century. Although we've centralized a lot of our governmental functions (especially with the advent of information technology) the idea that the states matter and that they should to the extent that's practical decide how to conduct their own affairs is baked in to a lot of how America deals with these things. This position is more explicitly associated with the Right in the US but even on the Left you can hear some echos of the principle.

I realize that from outside the US seems to be a homogenous McDonald's-and-Walmart kind of place but the United States is massive and far more diverse than it looks from merely e.g. consuming American media.

So part of the answer to your question is simply that things are inefficient simply because no one is in charge of forcing them to be, so the Second Law applies. And just like increasing entropy is the default for a closed system, in America in many ways the default is still to defer to local and state authorities instead of dictating them from Washington no matter how badly some of them do at managing them.

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    I don't think this answer is useful. Whether the counting method is decided in Mount Pleasant or Des Moines or Washington DC is neither here nor there for how fast or slow the count is. – gerrit Nov 6 '20 at 7:59
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    @gerrit On the contrary, if 50 states and perhaps even 3,141 counties each act separately, we can expect a wide diversity of counting speeds ranging from quite fast to quite slow. In a close election, the final result can be as slow as the slowest county even if many others were counted fast. – krubo Nov 6 '20 at 10:00
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    At my polling place, the election judges were also responsible for cleaning up everything, and then transporting the ballots to the election board. (with the USB sticks from the scanning machines). As we were damned tired after a 16hr day, plus setup the night before, and we had extra stuff to pack up because of COVID (pylons & plexiglass screens) it was at least 90 minutes before we had things cleaned up so the chief judges could head to the election board offices. But it doesn't matter, as they don't count the provisional ballots 'til next Wednesday (by law, to allow for 'curing') – Joe Nov 6 '20 at 18:23
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In addition to what many said here already, some points:

  • the 'huge' numbers of votes to be counted should not make any difference. All related tasks could be easily parallelized
  • basically, every location has a different reason for being slow, often prescribed by century-old laws, processes, or rituals
  • any changes towards faster and / or easier processes hit strong resistance, for all kind of reasons (again, varying from place to place), mostly general disability by the two ruling parties to agree on anything, and 'we always did it that way' thinking
  • not to forget, the cost for the processing is carried by the local executor, so each location has their own ideas how to save money

As others mentioned, allowing and distributing the process decisions to states and from there to counties results long-term in infinite varition, each their own issues.

  • It was often Britain that was seen as being hidebound by tradition! – WS2 Nov 6 '20 at 9:15
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    @WS2 - every country is hidebound by tradition. Just which traditions they are, varies. – user4012 Nov 6 '20 at 11:49
  • "Could be easily parallelized" true in theory, hard in practice. Who's going to count them? Or more precisely, how much is the public willing to spend on paying people to count them? – Jared Smith Nov 6 '20 at 14:51
  • @JaredSmith , it is not obvious why it would be significantly more expensive to have 2000 voters per location and count them within 2 hours than having 20000 per location and count them in 20 hours. You have to pay the extra locations, but the number of worked hours should be about equal. – Aganju Nov 6 '20 at 19:15
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    @aganju I'm under the impression that it's hard to find people to work a temporary job for meager pay in a lot of places and that such operations tend to almost always be short-handed but I will be pleasantly surprised if you prove my cynicism unfounded... – Jared Smith Nov 6 '20 at 21:03
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Another point that I don't believe has been mentioned yet is again with regards to mail in voting:

When does the counting of votes start?

In the UK, the process of checking and counting of postal ballots starts as soon as they start arriving. Local authorities have teams of people, mostly made up of council staff, waiting to begin counting mail in ballots.

While some states in the US may do this, many seem to not begin counting votes until election day.

Source: I work for a UK local authority and have taken part in vote counting.

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Because these Northern constituencies were (historically) extremely safe Labour seats where, as British political types say, "they weigh the Labour vote". They are also very geographically small urban centres where the physical process of collecting votes is very easy.

So it's physically very easy to count the votes, and it is highly unlikely that there will be a close race. So no-one really cares if, e.g., the Conservative candidate gets 100 votes counted wrong if he/she is going to lose by 10,000 votes.

This is why, when you watch UK election results, it always looks like Labour is winning at first as their urban, safe seats come in - and then the Conservative base in the countryside comes in and the truer picture becomes clearer.

Even in the UK, marginal seats take longer to count, as do larger, rural constituencies. The extreme example is Na h-Eileanan an Iar/the Western Isles, which sometimes takes days to count because it's made up of islands which the boxes need to be physically collected from by boat. One time, the Scottish Parliamentary election hung in the balance for a day while this count took place.

And of course, even the largest UK constituencies are tiny compared to, say, Alaska.

So basically small constituency size + overwhelming majority for winning party + urban electorate = easy and quick count.

Simple as that.

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It's worth digging in on the implications of mail-in voting a little bit. Other answers have already noted two things:

  • Ballots can arrive in the mail after election day—depending on state law, these may or may not be counted, as the deadline varies
  • The date the counting of mailed ballots starts depends on state law too. In this election, Republicans in several key states blocked efforts to start the process before election day, meaning election officials couldn't start the work in advance, even as some officials pushed to be able to start earlier.

Regular votes cast in-person on election day are usually counted quickly. While systems vary depending on where you are, in many areas, they're directly scanned using a scanner at the polling place, and the process at the end of the night requires bringing the results of those scans back to a central facility so they can be aggregated and reported.

But mail-in ballots require more processing. Every envelope is often scanned, the signature needs to be verified, the voter is confirmed on the voter registry, the envelope is opened, the ballot removed (anonymizing the vote), the ballot unfolded, checked, and scanned for counting. This is a labor-intensive process that needs to be performed with high accuracy and special safeguards (separation of duties, different staffers checking each other's work, observers monitoring the process, risk limiting audits, etc...), and it occurs infrequently, so there's not a large pool of people just waiting around to do it. So it always takes a while.

And then there's the pandemic. Many states suddenly and massively expanded the number of people who voted by mail in this election. In some areas, voting by mail went from an exceptional and fairly rare procedure to a primary means of voting in a matter of months. Governments had limited time and funds to expand their ability to process these votes.

But those are all the cases where everything goes well. There are also a number of ballots that are more complicated and require more handling: the signature verification might fail; the voter might have forgotten to sign their mail-in envelope entirely; the voter may have tried to vote both by mail and in person; the voter may have drawn stray marks or spilled coffee on their ballot; the voter may have voted for a write-in candidate (a legitimate one who is actually running, or just written in someone's name to be amusing/make a point); the voter could be a first-time voter voting by mail who didn't provide ID with their registration; the voter could have gone to the wrong place to vote; the voter might have registered to vote for the first time on election day (only allowed in some states); and many, many other possibilities.

There aren't a ton of these ballots compared to the millions of votes cast, but it's a large country and they add up, since each one requires a process be followed. For instance, say you request a ballot to vote by mail, but show up on election day looking to vote in person instead. If you don't bring, or never received, your mail-in ballot, the elections department needs to do some extra steps to make sure you only get to vote once. Or if you forget to sign your mail-in ballot, there needs to be a process to set your ballot aside, notify you there's a problem, and give you some mechanism to fix it. If your ballot can't be scanned because you ignored the instructions and wrote "YES I WANT TO VOTE FOR THAT ONE PLEASE" next to someone's name instead of filling in the little circle, multiple people need to look at that ballot, decide how to count it, and fill out a replacement ballot that can be scanned. In a very close election, knowing the results of all these ballots that have gone through an exceptional process can make the difference, and those all take more time, especially if this process isn't even allowed to start before election day.

The underlying message here is that the slow count is, at least in part, a product of making voting more accessible, and the rest of it is a deliberate strategy this year by those who wanted to make it take as long as possible on purpose. We count more people's votes if we say, as California did this year, "it's ok if you drop your ballot in a mailbox on election day; we'll count it's postmarked on election day and it shows up by November 20th." But that also means California can't count ballots that are still physically in the mail, so it takes longer. If a particular race isn't close, then that doesn't matter a lot—officials will keep up the count to get final, official totals, while everyone will lose interest once the outcome is clear—but in a close contest, things like that matter.

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    Some of these things apply in other countries too, so they should not matter in the comparison: People casting invalid or difficult-to-interpret votes, the pandemic (my German state held a communal election a few months ago and it went smoothly), people asking for mail ballots but then appearing in person. – Wrzlprmft Nov 7 '20 at 10:21

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