How votes are cast and counted varies from state to state

Henry Keyser
·3-min read
A woman walks past a voting sign painted on a wall Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in the Venice Beach section of Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
A woman walks past a voting sign painted on a wall Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in the Venice Beach section of Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The exact moment when we will learn who has won the 2020 presidential election will be highly dependent on the election laws of each state and how the ballots are received. More than 150 million people are expected to vote this year, and more than 96 million ballots have already been cast, according to Michael McDonald of the U.S. Elections Project.

The votes are being received in four different ways: absentee ballots that are sent via the U.S. mail, absentee ballots that are deposited in official drop boxes, in-person ballots in states that conduct early voting and in-person voting nationwide on Election Day. Not every state offers every method of early voting, and some states strongly embrace certain techniques.

California, the most populous U.S. state, also has the most early voters. In 2017, California started a Vote by Mail Ballot Drop Box program and has since expanded it to include more than 3,000 secure and accessible boxes, such as the one seen in the interactive below.

Starting the week before Election Day, ballots deposited in drop boxes in California have been picked up every 24 hours. California was one of nine states this year to automatically send a mail-in ballot to all registered voters. So far, about only about half of those 21 million ballots in California have been returned. Registered voters in the state are not required to vote by mail and can simply show up at their polling place to cast a ballot in person.

For the past seven years, all registered voters in Colorado have also received an absentee ballot in the mail thanks to the 2013 Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act. The law also allows eligible citizens to register to vote up to and on Election Day. The system is widely viewed by both Democrats and Republicans as the most successful in the country, and only 13 instances of election fraud have been reported in Colorado since 2006.

In Georgia, early voting began three weeks ago, and the turnout has been record-setting. Thanks to pandemic safety concerns and lingering memories from the 2018 election — when some voters waited in line for up to 11 hours to cast their vote — 3.9 million votes were cast early in the state this year, tripling the early vote turnout from 2016. Of those 3.9 million, two-thirds were in person and only one-third was by mail.

New Hampshire is famous for its large percentage of in-person voting on Election Day. The tiny town of Dixville Notch, population 12, is the first place in the U.S. to cast its votes on Election Day, opening its polling site at midnight. This year, Dixville Notch will continue to uphold that tradition, but its residents, like all New Hampshirites, have the option to either mail in their ballot or drop it off the polling place.

While California, Colorado and Georgia have all reached more than 75 percent of their 2016 totals just by early voting this year, as of Monday morning an update from New Hampshire’s secretary of state showed that only 24 percent of the state’s 2016 totals had been received, suggesting that voters there will continue their tradition of voting in person on Election Day.

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