Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin decided the 2016 election. We’ll have to wait on them in 2020. – POLITICO

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That means that the country may be waiting, along with voters in the three Midwestern states, to see whether Trump or Joe Biden carried their electoral votes — and potentially the presidency.

“People kind of underestimate the enormity of that task,” said Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, as he ticked through the long processing checklist that each ballot must go through before it can be counted. LaRose’s state, unlike many of its neighbors, lets election authorities start processing ballots earlier. “God forbid we had to do all of that on election night.”

A handful of states including Ohio and Florida, another key battleground, allow election officials to process or even count mail ballots early, meaning they typically report results quickly even when there is heavy mail voting.

But the Midwestern trio that tipped the 2016 election will have to wait, with the reported results potentially shifting as ballots are tallied because Trump voters favor in-person voting and Biden voters favor mail voting this year, according to public and private polling and state absentee ballot request data.

POLITICO examined the voting process in 13 battleground states, surveying who is allowed to request a mail ballot, when election officials can start processing ballots and more. In every state but Florida, the office of the state’s chief election official answered a series of questions on how the state conducts its elections. We also collected data on the share of mail ballots returned in 2018, a rough baseline for the state’s experience with processing large amounts of election mail, from the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights organization.

The results explain both how votes are cast and, critically, when they are counted in the most important states in the 2020 election.

“We should be prepared for this to be closer to an election week as opposed to an Election Day,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, said recently on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “The bottom line is we are not going to have the full results and a counting of all of our ballots on election night. We already know that.”

Here are the rules and procedures for voting and vote-counting in 13 battleground states.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

All registered voters are able to request a mail ballot. Ballots are not automatically being mailed to all voters, but Arizona has a permanent early voting list in the state that many voters have already signed up for. (Voters not on the list can request a ballot online.)

When are mail-in ballots due?

Ballots are due by the close of polls on Election Day.

When does in-person voting begin?

Early voting varies by county. It can start on Oct. 7 and run through the Friday before Election Day.

How are votes processed?

The signature verification process can begin when the ballots are received, and tabulation can start two weeks before Election Day.

Arizona is no stranger to protracted vote counts and watching the lead in close races change hands. In the 2018 Senate race, Republican Martha McSally led early before Democrat Kyrsten Sinema pulled ahead as all ballots were counted.

Sinema’s win prompted conspiracy theories from Trump at the time, and GOP Rep. Paul Gosar recently reignited those same baseless charges that the final count was not accurate.

“It’s normal that results are not final on election night,” said Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat. “I can testify to that from firsthand experience.” (Hobbs trailed in her 2018 race in early counts, before ultimately winning.)

Hobbs is confident her state is prepared for November, citing the high number of voters in Arizona who already routinely vote via the mail. “Pennsylvania, Michigan, they’re doing large-scale vote-by-mail in ways that they haven’t done before,” she said. “We’ve had time in Arizona to build up that infrastructure and processes.”

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

All registered voters are able to request a mail ballot. Absentee ballots can be requested online on county election supervisors’ websites.

When are mail-in ballots due?

Ballots must be received by the close of polls on Election Day.

When does in-person voting begin?

Early voting runs, at a minimum, from Oct. 24-31. Some counties may offer additional days.

How are votes processed?

Ballots can typically be processed and tallied starting 22 days before the election, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, signed an executive order that allows the process to begin sooner, once a technical process called “logic and accuracy testing” is completed. (Releasing results before polls close is a felony.)

Because of that head start, Florida is one state that could provide early signs about the 2020 election on election night. Florida starts processing ballots exceptionally early, and a decisive result in the state could foreshadow how the vote has shifted elsewhere since the last election, when Trump narrowly carried Florida.

Florida also has a long history with vote-by-mail, allowing any voter to request a ballot since 2002, meaning both voters and election administrators are familiar with the process.

“I think Florida is in a good position to be the shining star on election night,” said Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer, the current president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association. “We’ve got the processes in place to do this.”

Of course, Florida regularly has close elections that take time to settle, too. There was the infamous 2000 presidential recount as well as the state’s 2018 gubernatorial and Senate elections, where now-GOP Sen. Rick Scott and DeSantis saw their already tight margins from Election Day shrink as outstanding votes were counted.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

All registered voters are able to request a mail ballot. Over 500,000 voters on a “rollover list” who meet two criteria — they requested mail ballots for the primary, and they are over 65 or disabled — will be automatically mailed ballots for November. Others can request a ballot online.

When are mail-in ballots due?

Typically, mail ballots must be received by close of polls on Election Day. A federal judge ruled that the state must accept ballots postmarked by Election Day and delivered up to three days afterward, but Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office is appealing the ruling.

When does in-person voting begin?

Early voting starts on Oct. 12 and ends the Friday before Election Day. Some counties will offer weekend early voting, and all counties have early voting on Oct. 24.

How are votes processed?

Signature matching happens when the ballots are received, and election officials can prep the ballots for tabulation by running them through ballot scanners up to two weeks and one day before the election. Actually adding up the results cannot start until close of polls on Election Day.

Georgia’s much-maligned June primary, rife with delays, long lines and other problems, showed how difficult it can be to parse incomplete vote counts and high levels of mail voting in states without significant prior experience.

A handful of competitive races were uncalled for days, and The Associated Press ultimately had to retract two race calls in the state as more votes were counted. Georgia’s requirement that statewide candidates (though not the presidential candidates) win a majority of the vote or face a runoff will add another degree of difficulty for election projectors in November.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

All registered voters are able to request a mail ballot. Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican, has already mailed every active, registered voter a form to request an absentee ballot.

When are mail-in ballots due?

Absentee ballots that are postmarked by the Monday before the election and received before noon the following Monday will also be counted.

When does in-person voting begin?

Voters can cast ballots in-person at county auditors’ offices, starting on Oct. 5 and running through Nov. 2.

How are votes processed?

Iowa allows for processing and tabulation to begin the day before Election Day, but some officials in the state are warning that they will not have enough time to complete the count on election night.

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller is urging Pate to make an administrative rule change allowing processing to begin earlier, writing in a petition that “with current rules, most counties in Iowa will not be able to finish tabulating absentee ballots by 10 p.m.” on election night.

“Why set ourselves up for failure by only allowing the Monday before to start counting ballots when we could … start counting maybe as early as Friday, because we need that,” Miller said.

Kevin Hall, a spokesperson for Pate, wrote in an email to POLITICO that “we’re working on expanding the time for them to prepare absentee ballots for counting,” contending that any changes would first need to be approved by the Iowa Legislative Council.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

All registered voters are able to request a mail ballot. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, recently sent postcards to 4.4 million voters who have not yet requested mail ballots with instructions on how to do so, though she didn’t send the actual application.

When are mail-in ballots due?

Absentee ballots must be received by the time polls are closed on Election Day.

When does in-person voting begin?

Voters can request, fill out, and turn in absentee ballots in their local clerk’s office starting 40 days before the election.

How are votes processed?

Clerks can verify the signature on the exterior of the envelope when the ballot is received, but they cannot begin other processing steps, like opening envelopes, or the counting of ballots until Election Day.

Benson has long been warning the public not to expect immediate results out of Michigan, in part due to the state’s processing rules.

“We are preparing folks now for the reality that we may not know any results, or even want to announce any results in Michigan, until maybe even Thursday or Friday after the election,” Benson told POLITICO in May. “We’re going to prioritize security and accuracy over all else, and that may mean we take a little bit more time.”

Benson and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a fellow Democrat, have pushed the state Legislature to allow election administrators to process ballots before Election Day, as well as calling for ballots that are postmarked by Election Day to count, as long as they’re received within the next 48 hours. The state Legislature has not acted on the request, but Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican, recently said conversations around changes are not dead.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

All registered voters are able to request a mail ballot. Roughly 200,000 Minnesotans live in jurisdictions that automatically send out ballots because they have fewer than 400 registered voters, but the majority of voters will not get one automatically. All other voters can request a ballot online.

When are mail-in ballots due?

Ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 10.

When does in-person voting begin?

Minnesota early voting starts on Sept. 18, one of the earliest start times in the country, and runs through Nov. 2.

How are votes processed?

Mail ballot processing can begin two weeks before Election Day. Final tallies won’t be run until election night.

Minnesota will likely count votes faster than some of its neighbors, giving election administrators in the state a long windup time to handle the expected surge of mail votes.

“That head start is typically seven days, but this year at our urging, [lawmakers] doubled it,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, a Democrat. “So we can start processing and doing everything with absentee ballots 14 days before the election.”

Simon was quick to note that, even with the extended time frame, there is no public tally of the vote count before the polls close on Election Day, stressing the security of the system. The state, which typically requires ballots to be returned by close of polls, also has a postmark deadline instead this year, giving ballots with an Election Day postmark a week to be returned.

“We won’t, by definition, have 100 percent of the results until a week later,” Simon said. “But I do think that in the majority of contests, we will know the outcomes far sooner than that.” Simon’s office will also publish the number of outstanding mail ballots to better give voters (and the media) an idea of what’s left to potentially be counted.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

All active voters in the state will be mailed a ballot, after the state Legislature passed a new law earlier this year (over the objection of Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske).

When are mail-in ballots due?

Ballots that are postmarked by Election Day and received within seven days will count.

When does in-person voting begin?

Early voting will run from Oct. 17-30 at specified locations.

How are votes processed?

Ballots processing can begin up to 15 days before Election Day.

Nevada is the only swing state that plans on sending all active voters in the state an absentee ballot, after the state Legislature passed AB4 earlier in the summer.

The law expands mail-in voting during times of emergency and allows third parties to collect and return unopened ballots — which is championed by Democrats as “community collection” and derided by Republicans as “ballot harvesting.”

The new law has drawn condemnation from Trump, as well as a lawsuit, which is still in progress in federal court. Earlier in September, state and national Democrats sought to have Trump’s suit tossed out.

And in Nevada, conclusive results are not expected on Nov. 3. “It is unlikely that we will have results on election night,” said Jennifer Russell, a spokesperson for Cegavske.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

Any registered voter is able to request a mail ballot.

When are mail-in ballots due?

Ballots that are received by 5 p.m. on Election Day will count.

When does in-person voting begin?

There is no in-person, early voting.

How are votes processed?

Municipalities can schedule one session on either the Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Monday prior to Election Day to do “limited partial processing” of absentee ballots. Ballots can be counted on Election Day.

New Hampshire is one of the handful of states that effectively expanded absentee voting in the state to all voters, after having fairly restrictive absentee ballot laws in years past.

The state, which usually requires a valid excuse to vote absentee, is giving all voters the option to request a ballot ahead of November. Any voter can request one, citing “I am unable to vote in person due to concern for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).”

Officials in the state are hopeful that most of the tally would be completed on election night.

“Most of our clerks will work until 2 or 3 in the morning. They stay there until they’re done,” said Marge Morgan, the clerk in Greenland, N.H. and president of the New Hampshire City & Town Clerks’ Association. “It’s going to be kind of a wait and see, to be honest with you … most of the towns probably should have their votes in that night or in the wee hours of the morning.”

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

Any registered voter is able to request a mail ballot. The state is sending a judicial voter guide to all households, which also includes one absentee ballot request form. (Voters can request an absentee ballot online.)

When are mail-in ballots due?

Ballots that are postmarked by Election Day must be received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 6.

When does in-person voting begin?

In-person early voting runs from Oct. 15-31.

How are votes processed?

Upon receipt, election staff check outer envelopes for completeness. Beginning five weeks before Election Day, local election boards can begin approving absentee ballots. Many boards will then insert ballots into a voting machine, but results are not tabulated or reported until Election Day.

Election officials both in North Carolina and across the country caution that, like in years past, no results are official until the results are certified. In North Carolina, that doesn’t happen until 10 days later.

“One of the things that we are trying to caution, the media and the public and candidates even, is that while we try to process and tabulate and put forward all the results that we possibly can on election night, it’s not official until we [certify results],” state election director Karen Brinson Bell said in a mid-May interview.

“We do still have military and overseas ballots that we can accept,” she continued. If other ballots are postmarked on Election Day, they are “counted during our canvass period. … So a truly close race, we shouldn’t be calling any of those until we actually certify.”

But some results may be more definitive. Bell has projected that as much as 80 percent of voters in the state will vote before Election Day, either via mail or in-person early voting, so a majority of results could be compiled on election night.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

Any registered voter is able to request a mail ballot. Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose is mailing all registered voters an absentee ballot request form.

When are mail-in ballots due?

Ballots must be returned to local boards of elections by 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 3 or postmarked by Nov. 2 and received no later than 10 days after the election in order to count.

When does in-person voting begin?

In-person early voting runs Oct. 6-Nov. 2.

How are votes processed?

Local boards of elections can begin to start processing ballots on Oct. 6. They can be tabulated at 7:30 p.m. the night of the election.

Unlike much of the rest of the Midwest, Ohio election officials can start processing mail-in ballots well before election. But even that does not guarantee that winners will be known on election night. “The question is, will it be conclusive or not?” LaRose, the secretary of state, said.

LaRose’s office will be publicizing a key number on election night — the number of outstanding absentee ballots — to help election observers determine whether results are conclusive or not.

“You’ll be able to see on our website on election night that candidate A has X number of votes, and candidate B has X number of votes … and that there are still X number of outstanding absentee ballots,” LaRose said. “So if any candidate has a 4 or 5 percent lead on election night, and they’re winning by a million votes and there’s only a couple hundred thousand outstanding absentee ballots, then the contest is over, right? I think numerically, that’s pretty straightforward.”

“But if it’s a tighter race … well, then yeah, you just can’t say that it’s a conclusive result yet at that point,” LaRose continued.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

Any registered voter is able to request a mail ballot. Voters can request an absentee ballot online

When are mail-in ballots due?

Ballots must be received by close of polls on Election Day. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, asked in a recent lawsuit for a court to institute a postmark deadline in Pennsylvania instead of the received-by deadline.

When does in-person voting begin?

There is no formal early voting, but voters can request and fill out an application for a mail-in ballot at their county election board, receive it, vote and turn it in all in one visit, once ballots are finalized and printed.

How are votes processed?

Processing can’t start until the morning of Election Day, but legislation is pending.

Pennsylvania has a chance of lengthening the period for ballot processing and alleviating the strain on election workers on election night, but time is running short.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf is pushing for changes that would allow processing to begin weeks before the election. The GOP-controlled state Legislature is moving a bill that allows for early processing to begin on the Saturday before the election, but Wolf has promised to veto the bill, which includes other election changes. It isn’t clear whether there will be a compromise.

A group of Pennsylvanians, especially Democrats in the state, is worried how Trump would react to a slow count, especially after the state’s June primary took weeks to wrap up, with Philadelphia in particular struggling to deal with all of its mail ballots.

“I continue to be discouraged by the rhetoric from the president, who equates the delay which we can all anticipate, because of predictable, unprecedented use of absentee balloting,” to fraud, said former Republican GOP Gov. Tom Ridge. A co-chair of the bipartisan group VoteSafe, Ridge has been pushing the state Legislature to adjust processing deadlines.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

Registered voters who have a valid excuse, like age or disability status, can request a mail ballot.

When are mail-in ballots due?

Ballots that are postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day are counted as long as they’re received by 5 p.m. the next day.

When does in-person voting begin?

Early voting runs Oct. 13-30.

How are votes processed?

The processing timeline is based on the size of the county. In larger counties, absentee votes can be tallied after the end of early voting, and when polls open on Election Day in smaller counties.

Texas is the only one of the 13 battlegrounds surveyed by POLITICO that has not effectively made mail voting available to all voters in the state. While there has been a push to get qualified voters to request ballots, the growth in mail voting is not expected to be as explosive as it is in other states.

In Texas, voters are eligible to vote by mail absentee if they fulfill one of a handful of potential excuses: Being at least 65, disabled, out of the county or “confined in jail, but otherwise eligible.”

A panel of federal judges recently ruled that Texas can keep its eligibility requirements for requesting absentee ballots, rejecting a bid from Democrats to expand absentee voting to all registered voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

How will voters get a mail-in ballot?

Any registered voter in Wisconsin can vote via the mail. The state board of elections mailed an informational packet to 2.6 million voters who haven’t yet requested a ballot. The packet includes a request form and a prepaid return envelope.

When are mail-in ballots due?

Ballots must be received by close of polls on Election Day.

When does in-person voting begin?

Municipal clerks are responsible for setting the dates and hours of in-person absentee voting, starting on Oct. 20 and running through Nov. 1.

How are votes processed?

Processing and tallying cannot begin until after polls open on Election Day.

“I can’t imagine anyone will know on election night what’s going to happen in Wisconsin,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin. Heck added that he doesn’t expect the state Legislature coming back into session to make changes.

As in several other states, there is litigation ongoing to try to make the deadline for turning in mail ballots based on the postmark date, not the date they are received.

Ballots postmarked by the date of Wisconsin’s April election were ultimately counted after back-and-forth legal wrangling in the early weeks of the pandemic. That resulted in an additional 79,000 votes becoming valid, which wouldn’t have counted under normal rules. It also held up the release of any results until nearly a week after the election.

Wisconsin is back to its regular rules for November, but Democrats are again challenging the due-date law.

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