Why vote counting in Pennsylvania and Michigan takes so long

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By Miles Parks

Election Day itself went off far more smoothly than many election officials would have predicted seven months ago, as the pandemic took hold in the middle of primary season.

But for months, those officials warned that the expected influx of mail-in votes this year could mean a longer wait before the winner of the presidency was known.

As Nov. 3 turned into Nov. 4, it became clear that’s exactly what was happening.

Voting administrators worked into and through the wee hours in swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Officials in those states pleaded for patience as they worked through the unprecedented amount of mail votes they received.

DETROIT, MI – NOVEMBER 04: A worker with the Detroit Department of Elections waits for the next absentee ballot to be sorted through at the Central Counting Board in the TCF Center on November 4, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. After a record-breaking early voting turnout, Americans head to the polls on the last day to cast their vote for incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. (Photo by Elaine Cromie/Getty Images)

“We’re doing everything we can to get it done as soon as possible, but we’ll be working 24 hours — through the night — to get it done,” said Lisa Deeley, the chairwoman of the Philadelphia City Commissioners. Other counties in Pennsylvania were not set to even begin counting their absentee ballots until Wednesday.

In most states, election officials could start the arduous process that goes into counting mail votes many days before Election Day, but in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, officials had their hands tied by state laws that did not allow for such preparation.

To be clear, this sort of waiting game for results is not uncommon.

Official results have never been fully tallied by election night; the announced winners and losers on the night of the election are actually projections made by media organizations, explained Justin Levitt, an election law expert at Loyola Law School.

“We never, ever have election results on election night,” Levitt said. “We have essentially educated guesses.”

Officials in Wisconsin said they expected to get through their absentee votes by Wednesday. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson predicted her state would be done counting by Friday, and similarly, Pennsylvania Secretary of state Kathy Boockvar said the “overwhelming majority of ballots” in her state would be counted “within a few days.”

DETROIT, MI – NOVEMBER 04: A problem ballot box is placed on the end of a table where workers with the Detroit Department of Elections sorts through absentee ballots at the Central Counting Board in the TCF Center on November 4, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. After a record-breaking early voting turnout, Americans head to the polls on the last day to cast their vote for incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. (Photo by Elaine Cromie/Getty Images)