Election Results and Our Chaotic Voting System

How will our wildly varied 50-state system of ballot collecting and counting impact when we find out the election results?

Robert Y. Shapiro
October 22, 2020

The 2020 election has driven home that the United States has a disparate and at times chaotic 50-state (plus D.C.) voting system. The country has no centralized election system, which means that each state determines its voting procedures and requirements. Our different voting systems will affect how soon we will find the 2020 presidential election results, particularly the electoral vote in the swing states.

Beyond their particular registration, voter identification, and absentee ballot requirements, and different voting hours and voting technology, these battleground states, like others, have responded to the pandemic by allowing for no-excuse mail-in ballots, expanded early voting, and they have reconfigured and relocated polling places—all in different ways. But here the rubber hits the road: the competitive states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have different rules covering mail-in ballot deadlines, when the ballots are processed, how they are deemed “accepted,” and how and when the votes are finally counted. The states also differ as to when ballots can be accepted.

Despite the warnings that we need to be patient, we may have a good idea of the final result by election night or the day after. The winners of the overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic states should be clear, and many of the swing states have counting processes that could allow us to see their results sooner than later. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Ohio can pre-process mail-in ballots a couple weeks before election day, November 3; New Hampshire, early in the afternoon on election day; Iowa, the day before election day; and Wisconsin, election day, and it is expected to count ballots quickly, with none accepted after that day. If nearly all these states broke clearly toward Biden or Trump, the election would be over.

However, if the election, like in 2016, comes down to Michigan and Pennsylvania, we would have to wait, because they accept votes a few days past election day and may not count ballots sufficiently quickly. All bets are off for a clear winner, though, if the parties and candidates make claims of vote fraud or voter suppression, and the election moves into the courts.


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Robert Y. Shapiro is the Wallace S. Sayre Professor of Government in the department of political science. He specializes in American politics with research and teaching interests in public opinion, policymaking, political leadership, the mass media, and applications of statistical methods. 


This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.