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How Long Do States Legally Have to Count Ballots?

Every presidential election is significant, but Election 2020 definitely has a lot at stake. Some voters are excited to have a voice in wanting to continue current policies while others are demanding new directions. Public interest in voting is especially high and COVID restrictions have made it possible for more voters to choose safer and more convenient voting options, which could result in significantly more ballots cast than in recent years. As of today, Election Day, over 100 million Americans have already voted through in-person early voting opportunities and by mail. 

The avalanche of early voting and mail-in ballots has created some uncertainty about whether a complete and accurate count is possible on Election Day, and how long states actually have to complete the process of counting votes after Election Day. Here are some common questions that have come up with respect to vote counting for Election 2020.


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What is the deadline for all states to turn in their vote count and do different states have different deadlines?

To accommodate possible delays, including ballots sent through the mail or absentee votes mailed from around the world, each state has its own schedule of when election results must be completed and certified.

On average, it’s about two weeks from the general election, although some states may vary on the exact day and formal canvassing procedures. For instance, North Dakota leaders must review and certify the votes 17 days after the general election, while Ohio requires 21 days. Washington State requires 10 days for special elections, 14 days after primaries  and 21 days after general elections.

Pennsylvania allows ballots to be received three days after Election Day as long as they’re postmarked on Election Day or earlier. Wisconsin offers six days with the same criteria.

Texas provides some latitude for delayed counts. In most cases, formal reviewing must take place no earlier than the 15th day or not later than the 30th from a general election. In certain circumstances involving provisional ballots, the review can take place no earlier than the 18th day or no later than the 33rd.

What happens if there is not enough manpower to count all the votes in time for the final deadline?

States have a little wiggle room, useful for elections like this one where there will be many votes combined with high emotion and media attention.

Although each state has an established deadline, officially it can take a little longer, especially if there are possible local controversies, such as a challenger contesting results or an absentee voter living abroad reporting delays in sending their ballot in.

The “Safe Harbor” deadline for a state to resolve a contested election is Dec. 8.

This also provides a degree of extra time to assemble the Electoral College, which is required to vote on Dec. 14 and deliver results to Washington, D.C. by Dec. 23.

Can the vote count deadline be extended and how would that impact the rest of the election timeline?

By code, Congress potentially could vote to change election deadlines and days for the Electoral College to vote, but this step can’t be done by executive order. The Supreme Court also might have to weigh in on various expected injunctions from various political parties that would stake out different sides in this potential situation.

Delays could have a ripple effect on much of the workings of government, including the stated length of terms of elected officials and even inauguration festivities. If the election was delayed a month or longer, each affected office holder would still be required to complete a full term, rather than leave when they normally would to make sure the next election runs as scheduled.

These questions aren’t new to 2020. Similar discussions took place in Fall 2001, when the country was still reeling from the painful tragedy of a terrorist attack in September. The previous November, the Supreme Court had a role in the outcome of the presidential election. Lawmakers and presidents alike affirmed then, and now, that in the country’s nearly 250-year history, circumstances have never required this particular drastic measure.

How do I track my mail-in ballot to make sure it is received and counted?

The Secretary of State’s office for each state may provide this information if an eligible voter calls or visits their state’s election page. Here’s a good list of states with links to help you find out how to track your mailed-in ballot. For instance, Washington voters can inquire online about the status of their mail-in ballot at votewa.gov.If you are concerned about voting irregularities or voter intimidation, or otherwise suspect election fraud with your ballot or in your community, and would like to determine if your legal rights have been violated, contact an attorney.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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