Are results reported on election night coming from in-person or absentee/mail-in votes?

According to a projection from The New York Times, 80 million people will vote by mail in 2020, that number is more than twice the amount of people who did so in 2016. Given that absentee ballots take longer to process and count than in-person ballots, some voters wonder whether election night results reflect both sources of votes.

Election results reported on election night include a mixture of absentee/mail-in and in-person votes. However, many states will not complete the counting of absentee votes on election night. While some states only count absentee ballots that arrive after November 3, 2020 but are postmarked by that date, and other states are legally bound to wait until Election Day to begin processing absentee/mail-in ballots.

State laws set different reporting requirements for absentee/mail-in votes on election night. The most common method is for each precinct or voting district to add together in-person and absentee votes and report the total to the state elections agency. A few states create special precincts where absentee/mail-in votes are counted separately from in-person votes. For example, in Iowa, state law requires each county to have both an absentee ballot and special voters precinct.

Unofficial election night results are often displayed alongside the percentage of precincts reporting, which is intended as a measure of how far vote counting has progressed. The percentage of precincts reporting is not the same as the percentage of the total vote that has been counted. Precincts differ in size, meaning that one precinct might report a far greater number of votes than another. In addition, some states include a precinct in its percentage of precincts reporting if the precinct has reported any results at all, even if it is far from completing the vote count.

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About the author

Megan Feeney

Megan Feeney is a staff writer at Ballotpedia. Contact us at editor@ballotpedia.org.

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