In many states, voters find out who will win and lose on election night soon after the polls close.
Not in Georgia.
Georgia voters must wait and wait and wait — often until the wee hours of the morning. The bigger the county, the longer it takes to count votes, with Fulton County earning a reputation for getting its results in well after midnight.
That likely won’t change Tuesday, when the outcomes of the runoffs for Atlanta mayor, the City Council, the Fulton County Commission, state legislative seats and other positions will take time to trickle in.
Limited by Georgia’s electronic voting machine technology and state election rules, officials here are unable to deliver immediate vote numbers, even while other states do.
“I would think in this day and time it would be a quicker result,” said Karen DiGirolamo, a Roswell resident who said she sometimes goes to bed Tuesday night without knowing who won the races that interest her.
But in the age of touch-screen voting machines and online results, counting ballots takes some time.
Paper ballots, used by about 70 percent of counties in the United States, can actually take less time to count than electronic ones. Those counties can begin to report their results within moments of the election ending. Some already have early votes scanned and ready to be transmitted, without having to wait until the end of Election Day to close each machine and transport all of them through traffic.
In states such as Colorado, Florida and Washington, early voting with paper ballots is how most people participate in elections. By comparison, paper is only used in Georgia for voting by mail. About 5 percent of Georgia voters mailed in absentee ballots for last year’s presidential election.
“The states that these days get the numbers out faster are the ones that have a lot of absentee ballots, and they’re able to push those out quickly after the polls close,” said Charles Stewart, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who researches elections. “A state like Georgia … needs to rely on memory cards being counted.”
Memory cards containing results from each of Georgia’s 27,000 electronic voting machines must be driven to county elections offices to be counted, a process that can last hours. Remote uploads aren’t allowed by the state Election Board.
On top of that, state law prevents Georgia elections directors from counting absentee ballots or early votes until Election Day. In other states, they can begin the tabulation process far earlier.
A test run of a touch-screen-plus-paper voting system in Conyers went smoothly Nov. 7, with full results available from the city’s two precincts an hour after polls closed, roughly 15 to 25 minutes faster than normal.
If a paper-ballot system is implemented statewide, it will drastically cut down on the number of memory cards that are needed on Election Day. Paper ballots can be scanned by a single machine per precinct, so instead of closing out multiple electronic voting machines at each location, poll workers would only have to deal with one.
Many statewide and city of Atlanta elections are held up by slow reporting from Fulton County, where ballots from its 640,000 registered voters often aren’t tabulated until after midnight.
Fulton Elections Director Richard Barron sent a letter this week to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office proposing the county begin counting early votes when the polls open, at 7 a.m., instead of when they close, as state law had been interpreted. In the letter, Barron said he wanted to institute the process for Tuesday’s runoff. It could help speed Fulton’s election results, he said. The Secretary of State’s Office said in a statement that the “longstanding interpretation of Georgia law” is that ballots can’t be tabulated on electronic voting machines until polls are closed on Election Day.
In response to Barron’s letter, Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey said he has “no authority” to waive laws that require counting to start once polls are closed.
“Some of the bigger counties could use a different set of rules,” Barron said. He said the state’s outdated technology can be “excruciating.”
Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, said accuracy and security are the state’s top priorities when gathering election results. Speed is secondary.
“As many of the larger counties provide many polling places, this physical transporting of the memory cards is sometimes a longer process,” Broce said. “However, many counties complete their process in a matter of a few short hours.”
If all goes well in Fulton on Tuesday, Barron said, the process should take four hours. But the process doesn’t always go well.
In November, a group of cards that had yet to be uploaded were dropped into a bin with those that had already been, slowing results. In April, a memory card for a local council race was put into a basket for another race, resulting in an unknown error that took more than an hour to identify.
The process runs more quickly in other states. Florida usually begins reporting results from across the state within minutes after voting concludes.
“As vote-by-mail ballots come in, we queue them in to be tabulated come Election Day at 7 p.m., when the polls close,” said Suzy Trutie of the Miami-Dade County Elections Office. “For a small election, we could get done as early as 9 p.m.”
Colorado mails every resident a ballot at least 18 days before an election, and votes are counted as they’re mailed in. Usually, more than 93 percent of voters use the mailed ballots, said Dwight Shellman, a Colorado elections manager.
“Generally speaking, before anyone goes to bed on election night, they have a pretty good idea how it’s going to shake out, with the exception of very close races,” Shellman said.
Washington voters cast ballots entirely by mail or drop box, and their choices are ready to be swiftly reported, said Erich Ebel, a spokesman for the Washington Secretary of State’s Office. And in Texas, large counties have more flexibility in state law to count some returns early, said Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state.
Some voters have found a work-around to the state rules.
A Roswell City Council candidate, Sean Groer, created a website where residents could report results directly from printouts posted in local precinct windows. The numbers were displayed at campaign events across town, with winners evident shortly after 9 p.m.
“In Fulton County over the years, it’s been a challenge to get timely results,” Groer said. “We had the results for Roswell several hours before when we got them from Fulton.”