The slowness of the vote counting during the 2020 US presidential elections seems to fair a few amount of turmoil, especially given the vote-by-mail voter distribution. Why aren't the US presidential election results posted only once the winner has been decided?

  • What do you mean by “posted”? When a TV station “calls” a state for a candidate? When a state government official makes an announcement?
    – dan04
    Nov 6, 2020 at 20:36
  • @dan04 when vote counters are allowed to share tallies publicly Nov 6, 2020 at 20:37
  • 2
    Each of the 51 different presidential elections that make up the actual election for president have different rules on that.
    – Joe W
    Nov 6, 2020 at 20:41

5 Answers 5


Why aren't the US presidential election results posted only once the winner has been decided?

The winner will not be declared for another two months. Nobody wants to wait that long. The Associated Press was founded in 1846 to provide news on a faster basis, and in particular, to provide election predictions as soon as possible. The answer to your question lies in freedom of the press, election transparency, and modern communications.

Regarding freedom of the press, the press in the United States can say pretty much anything they want, except for libelous statements. The media can conduct their own polling (and they do) and they can obtain unofficial election results as they come in (and they do). There are no laws and there can be no laws that restrict the media from predicting the outcome of elections.

Regarding election transparency, there have been dark episodes in the country's past where the dead have voted for president, where nonexistent people have voted for president, and where the same person voted for president in multiple precincts. None of these is a good thing. Elections across the country are becoming ever more transparent to counteract these antidemocratic (lowercase D antidemocratic) issues.

Regarding modern communications, it was nigh impossible until very recently to obtain up to the minute unofficial election results. It wasn't possible to obtain up to the hour unofficial election results. As with other things in life, the internet has changed everything. I posted in a recent answer a famous photograph of President-elect Harry Truman holding a Chicago newspaper whose headline read "Dewey Defeats Truman!" Dewey did not defeat Truman. That erroneous declaration was based on results obtained by telephone and telegraph. The internet has changed everything.

  • 2
    Young people (people younger than 35 or so) do not comprehend how the internet has changed everything. The internet of 35 years ago was a nice way to slowly exchange scientific papers amongst the few organizations that had internet. Nobody had it at home. The internet of 25 years ago was a nice way of not so slowly publishing scientific results, but only to those in the know. The internet in the last 20 years or so has been massively transformative. Almost everyone have access (at least in developed countries), and almost anyone can have their say. And it does make buying things easy. Nov 6, 2020 at 21:06

Why aren't the US presidential election results posted only once the winner has been decided?

Because there's no rule that prescribes that. One of the main reason there is no such rule is because the election isn't really one presidential election in the United States. Indeed, there is a separate election in each state of the United States. As Wikipedia describes it:

The election of the president and the vice president of the United States is an indirect election in which citizens of the United States who are registered to vote in one of the fifty U.S. states or in Washington, D.C., cast ballots not directly for those offices, but instead for members of the Electoral College.

Each of these elections is governed by the individual states, with minimal direction at the federal level. For example, one of the things that is decided at the federal level is the date of the election.

Whether states allow intermediate tallies to be public is up to the individual states. To the best of my knowledge, none of the states have chosen to restrict the publication of these tallies after they've been submitted by a precinct. According to the New York Times:

What’s a precinct, anyway?

A precinct is the smallest level at which election results are reported. A precinct may be a few city blocks or an entire county.


Vote tallies are posted publicly in real time in the interests of transparency and openness. Imagine if all vote counting happened in secret, with the public only finding out the results at the very end – do you think people would have a lot of trust in that system? The secrecy needed to conceal the counts would make it vastly easier to commit fraud and much harder to detect it. Moreover, it would make the final number seem arbitrary and less trustworthy

Making the counts public increases the transparency of the process and gives the public, the press, and the campaigns the ability to watch for inconsistencies.


Election counting in the United States is very decentralized.

  1. Each state does its own counting, and by the U.S. Constitution, elects its own set of presidential electors.

  2. Most states further delegate the act of counting to counties, municipalities, or even precincts. The exceptions are those states which vote solely by mail, which allows a central counting facility.

Furthermore, there is transparency in the system, to ensure confidence that no part of the process has been tampered with.

  1. Observers from the major political parties and members of the press are allowed to witness the collection of counts from tallying machines (or manual counting).

  2. Some states require county or municipal websites to post their results. This creates a redundant way to check what is transmitted to the state election officials and the final state count.

  3. The press is able to combine the results from #3 and #4 to get a running picture of what is happening in a state, long before the total state count is official.

What this means is that results are available in a piecemeal but transparent fashion, rather than some secret singular result.

It's worth noting that some jurisdictions do exactly what you say: hold on to their results until they have completed their count. But their results are combined with many other jurisdictions which report at other times, so overall there is no coordinated result.

  • I am not positive that all mail-in ballots are counted centrally. I have lived in two counties in Washington, and received ballots from the county elections office. However, I'm not sure how they're actually counted. Nov 6, 2020 at 23:00
  • @AzorAhai--hehim: That's why I said "allows" instead of "uses". It makes central counting possible, but does not necessarily require it.
    – DrSheldon
    Nov 7, 2020 at 4:31
  • Right, but "Most states delegate ... the exceptions are those states ..." imply they do using a central facility but I'm not sure they all do. Nov 7, 2020 at 4:46

Because the final results are not official until January 6th when they are presented to both chambers of congress.

The induvial states have until December 14th for the its electors to be decided and not all states bind electors to vote the way the state did. Having to wait until December 14th or January 6th for the results to be announced would cause many more problems than we have now.


January 6, 2021: Joint Session of Congress to Count Electoral Votes and Declare Election Results Meets On January 6, or another date set by law, the Senate and House of Representatives assemble at 1:00 p.m. in a joint session at the Capitol, in the House chamber, to count the electoral votes and declare the results (3 U.S.C. §15). The Vice President presides as President of the Senate. The Vice President opens the certificates and presents them to four tellers, two from each chamber. The tellers read and make a list of the returns. When the votes have been ascertained and counted, the tellers transmit them to the Vice President. If one of the tickets has received a majority of 270 or more electoral votes, the Vice President announces the results, which “shall be deemed a sufficient declaration of the persons, if any, elected President and Vice President.”

Joint Session Challenges to Electoral Vote Returns While the tellers announce the results, Members may object to the returns from any individual state as they are announced. Objections to individual state returns must be made in writing by at least one Member each of the Senate and House of Representatives. If an objection meets these requirements, the joint session recesses and the two houses separate and debate the question in their respective chambers for a maximum of two hours. The two houses then vote separately to accept or reject the objection. They then reassemble in joint session, and announce the results of their respective votes. An objection to a state’s electoral vote must be approved by both houses in order for any contested votes to be excluded. For additional information, see CRS Report RL32717, Counting Electoral Votes: An Overview of Procedures at the Joint Session, Including Objections by Members of Congress, coordinated by Elizabeth Rybicki and L. Paige Whitaker


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