In U.S. elections, why does it take so long to count votes?

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Tuesday is election day. Although voters are not electing a president this year, they are electing some members of Congress and state and local officials. So this is a big day for the democratic system of the United States.

On Tuesday night, you may see stories or posts on social media announcing the winners. But even in this age of powerful computers and other fast technologies, the election process is not completed within a few hours or the next day.

Gretchen Makt, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Rhode Island, spoke with KidsPost about why that is. Industrial engineers work on systems and processes. Mashta has learned a lot about election processes since 2016, when she was asked to help Rhode Island eliminate long voting lines.

“When we count the votes, it takes time because we want to get it right,” Macht said. She said the kids might think of it as homework. “When you rush to do that homework, you get it done, but will it be right? Isn’t it better to go through it, leisurely?

There has been a long tradition of releasing ballots on election night, but these results are unofficial. “They haven’t been double and triple checked,” Macht said. Part of the reason is that there are many ways to vote and count votes in the United States.

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When the founders created the election process, they didn’t include many details. According to the United States Constitution, they left the “Times, Places, and Manner of Elections for Senators and Representatives” to state legislatures. As the nation grew and technology developed, the process became more complex.

“We have 50 different ways to do things,” Macht said.

Each country figures out what it thinks will work for its people, whether they live in big cities, small towns, or remote areas.

Voting times can include voting days or weeks in advance and on election day. Locations can be mailboxes, drop boxes, or designated polling stations in neighborhoods. And the “way” could be to use hand-marked and then scanned paper ballots; machines that put marks on paper (often from votes marked on a display screen); or machines that enter votes directly into a computerized vote counting system. The hand marked voting system is the most widely used.

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After voters finish casting their ballots on Tuesday, election officials and volunteers have plenty of work to do. Each polling place or precinct must provide ballots and then send them to the municipal elections office. The city or county will then often publish these results on their website. But these results are not official, even if all stations have finished reporting.

What happens next is called canvas work. A group of people, who may be election officials or members of each major political party, search or examine ballots to identify potential problems. They make sure poll workers and voters have followed the rules.

“What if I vote by mail and forget to sign the envelope? I don’t think my vote counts,” Macht said, some voters might think.

But the system is designed to catch this error. Many states will allow voters to “cure” or eliminate these types of problems so that their votes can be counted. But election officials must contact those people, and voters may have to show up in person.

Once the local committee is satisfied that all the ballots have been counted correctly, local officials review them again and then confirm or make those results official. Most states give counties or cities 1 to 3 weeks to complete this process. In California, which has nearly 22 million registered voters, up to 30 days are allowed.

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They send local results to the State Elections Office, which has its own review process. The officials then certify the results across the country.

Sometimes this lengthy process verifies these unofficial election night results, but in very close elections, another candidate can win. There is nothing wrong or suspicious about it. Election officials and volunteers make sure their homework version is as accurate as possible.

Machta admits the wait can be frustrating, and she encourages kids to ask questions.

“It’s exciting and you want to know the results,” she said. “Be patient. And if you don’t like the process, you can talk to election officials. They want to share that information.

A reminder from the KidsPost team: Our stories are aimed at 7- to 13-year-olds. We welcome discussions from readers of all ages, but please follow our community rules and make comments appropriate for this age group.


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