You might notice on election night that one candidate starts with a big lead, only to lose. How election officials count votes oftentimes can have a major impact on how the public views results.
While some of former President Donald Trump’s supporters claimed that these changing numbers meant the election was rigged, the reality was the results were largely expected.
One major culprit is the timing of when mail-in and early voting figures are added to the election count.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nine states and the District of Columbia cannot begin processing ballots until Election Day. Those states include Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Maryland doesn’t allow ballots to be processed until after Election Day.
Ohio and Connecticut leave the decision on when to count ballots to local election boards. All other states can begin processing ballots before Election Day.
Ten states allow officials actually to count ballots before Election Day. Twenty-three states can begin counting ballots on Election Day before polls close. Sixteen states don’t allow ballots to be counted until after polls close.
In Ohio, many counties opted to tabulate these ballots first. Trump won Ohio by 8% in 2020. Early on election night, however, Biden was actually in the lead.
Early votes accounted for 3.5 million of Ohio’s nearly 6 million ballots. In Mahoning County where Trump narrowly won in 2020, Democrats were three times more likely to vote early than Republicans.
In the state’s most populous county, Franklin, Biden won by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, but Trump actually had more votes on Election Day itself.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania is a state that counts its mail-in votes last. In 2020, the result was that Trump appeared to have a large lead on election night, only to see it slowly evaporate. Four days after votes were cast, Biden was declared the winner of the state by the Associated Press.
With Pennsylvania and Wisconsin expected to have tight Senate races, the result of these laws could mean it could take several days to know which party will control the Senate.
While the pandemic might have caused a sharper divide between how Democrats and Republicans cast ballots, Democrats are still more likely to use early voting options. According to data compiled by TargetSmart, Democrats have been 20% more likely to vote early in this year's midterm election.
To understand how each state counts its early ballots, click here.