Election officials say tight contests could hinge on military, overseas and provisional ballots that can be returned until the Monday after Election Day. All other ballots must be received by Tuesday and counted by the end of the day Wednesday.
“We have encouraged (counties), as soon as you get any new results in, to report them as you go,” said Gabriel Sterling, interim deputy secretary of state. “That way, we don’t have these conspiracy-minded people seeing large vote swings.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Demands for more immediate results arose from the 2020 election, when vote-counting of a record number of absentee ballots dragged on for several days and some supporters of Republican President Donald Trump alleged that those votes were illegitimate when Democrat Joe Biden took the lead. Multiple investigations and recounts upheld Biden’s victory.
Several initiatives will bring quicker vote counts.
About one-third of Georgia counties, including Cobb and Fulton, plan to begin counting early voting and absentee ballots on Election Day, but they’re not allowed to publicly report results until polls close. Vote-counters will be sequestered to prevent information leaks. Georgia’s voting law passed last year clarified that tabulation of early votes was allowed to start before polls closed on Election Day; previously, state law said absentee ballots could be counted in advance.
In addition, Georgia’s voting law requires that ballot counting “shall not cease” until finished. A tally of all verified absentee ballots must be completed by 5 p.m. the day after Election Day.
The law also allowed counties to begin opening and scanning — but not tabulating — absentee ballots 15 days before Election Day.
Fulton County plans to report its first batch of early voting results by 7:30 p.m. on election night, interim Elections Director Nadine Williams said. This is the first time Fulton will begin counting ballots before polls close, starting at 5 p.m.
“We’re going to try to go as fast as we can,” Williams said. “Even though the polls close at 7 o’clock, there’s a lot more work to be done. Just be patient and respect the process. For us, we’re still working around the clock.”
Ballots cast on Election Day will require more time to count.
In Fulton, it often takes over an hour to close down each polling place, then memory cards containing vote totals will be driven from 249 precincts across the county to nine check-in locations. From there, memory cards will be taken to an elections warehouse for tabulation.
Voters should understand that results are never finalized on election night, said Joseph Kirk, elections director for Bartow County.
While The Associated Press and other media call elections for winning candidates when the outcome appears to be clear, official results won’t be certified by counties until a week later. It takes time to tally, check and double-check vote counts for accuracy.
“Calling results on election night usually works out pretty well, but it can add to mistrust when we have really tight races, and we may not know who wins on election night,” Kirk said. “Folks get used to the idea that they should know who won before they go to bed, but that’s simply not how elections work.”
In addition, election officials caution voters about drawing conclusions from information about how many precincts have reported results. A county can show 100% of precincts reporting at least one ballot, but many more absentee and early ballots could still be pending.
Counties are required to disclose the total number of ballots cast by 10 p.m. on election night, according to Georgia’s voting law. That requirement came about in response to voter complaints that they didn’t know how many votes were still left to be counted in the 2020 presidential election.
Elections never end when polls close, and in Georgia, they will continue for weeks afterward.
After counties initially certify their results, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will announce one statewide race to be audited, as required by a state law passed in 2019. That audit law led to Raffensperger calling for a statewide hand count of all 5 million ballots in the 2020 presidential race, which showed that Biden defeated Trump by about 12,000 votes.
Raffensperger will then certify statewide results by Nov. 25.
There could be runoffs soon afterward.
Georgia requires runoff elections when no candidate receives over 50% of the vote, which can occur in races with Democratic, Libertarian and Republican candidates. According to last year’s voting law, runoffs would be held four weeks after Election Day, on Dec. 6. Previously, runoffs were scheduled nine weeks after Election Day.
How to see election results
Vote counts will be available on the secretary of state’s website at sos.ga.gov on election night. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will also post results and full coverage at ajc.com.