Don’t expect to learn the full results of the 2022 midterm elections on Tuesday night.
At least 11 states with highly competitive races will likely take 24 hours or more to report enough of their vote totals to declare winners. The races in Alaska, Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin include four marquee Senate races and 33 competitive House races.
That means that it’s highly unlikely we’ll know right away which party will control both chambers in Congress. It does not mean that something is amiss with the vote counting ― although Republicans in these 11 states are likely to say otherwise if they lose. In order to understand why the eventual lies spewed in the days after the election are wrong, it’s important to know how each state’s system for counting votes actually works.
There are varied reasons why these states will take longer to report results. In some states, including Arizona, California and Nevada, a large portion of voters will cast their ballots by mail on Election Day. This means election workers will need to go through the time-consuming work of processing these ballots before counting them.
In states including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Republicans have refused to enact legislation to allow mail ballots to be processed prior to Election Day. And the ranked choice voting systems of Alaska and Maine require all ballots to be received before they can be tallied and voter choices distributed.
But the biggest reason why results may take 24 hours or more to count is that these elections are expected to be close. The closeness of the 2020 presidential election is what made it take four days after Election Day before Joe Biden was declared the winner. And the same has been true in other recent elections for House, Senate and governor.
There is nothing abnormal about this. When elections are close, it is important that all ballots be counted to know who wins.
That includes mailed ballots. States of all political persuasions, from Utah to Oregon to Colorado, have been running all-mail elections for years with no problem at all. States have always provided a post-election period to canvass and count all of the votes cast in their elections.
Still, Republicans are wedded to a lie that mail voting is inherently fraudulent and that votes must be counted on election night or not be counted at all. In 2020, Donald Trump called for states to stop tallying votes on election night when he held a lead in key swing states with millions of ballots yet to be counted. Countless lawsuits, audits and recounts found no widespread fraud. But Trump’s corrupt effort to steal the election ultimately led to the failed attack he directed on the U.S. Capitol to stop the counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021.
Instead of being defeated, Trump’s lies have only metastasized, becoming a pillar of the Republican policy agenda. Nearly 300 GOP candidates running in 2022 believe the lie that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud. Many of them refuse to say that they will accept defeat if they lose.
These 11 states are likely to report final tallies over the course of a few days and, possibly, have their results called into question over it. Here’s how voting works in each of them.
If the race for House control is close, every seat will count. That might leave both parties waiting to see who wins the Alaska at-large congressional race between Democratic incumbent Mary Peltola and Republicans Sarah Palin and Nick Begich.
Alaska adopted a new system for its elections in 2020 called ranked choice voting. This system allows voters to rank their preferred candidates from first to fourth. The first candidate to achieve a majority of the vote wins. If no candidate does so, then the candidate receiving the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated and their second, third and fourth choices are added to the remaining candidates’ totals. This continues until one candidate wins.
This process requires all ballots to be returned before the state counts them. Since Alaska is very large and many voters cast ballots by mail, the state counts ballots postmarked by Election Day if they arrive up to 10 days after the election. It takes 15 days after Election Day for the final results to be known.
While Alaska also boasts a closely fought Senate race between incumbent Lisa Murkowski and challenger Kelly Tshibaka, they are both Republicans and any change in representation would not affect which party controls the Senate.
Pretty much everything is up for grabs in Arizona. The races for governor, senator, attorney general and secretary of state are all hotly contested, while three of the state’s 11 House races are competitive. If these elections all remain as close as the polls show them to be, then it is highly likely that it will take days after Election Day to know who won and who lost.
Arizona was among 10 states and the District of Columbia that did not report 90% or more of their 2020 final vote total until more than 48 hours after polls closed. In 2018, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was not announced the winner until six days after Election Day.
The reason Arizona takes so long to finalize its tally is that even though ballots returned before Election Day can be counted, a large contingent of voters don’t return their ballots until Election Day. Arizona also allows voters to fix any errors on their ballots up to five days after Election Day.
In 2018, the late-counted ballots were representative of the “blue shift” phenomenon and tilted heavily toward Democrats. But in 2020, Democrats returned their ballots early, while Republicans waited until Election Day. This created a “red shift,” whereby Republicans gained votes in the election overtime period.
It’s unclear which way late-counted ballots will tilt in 2022. Either way could be problematic, as every Republican running statewide has at one time or another endorsed Trump’s election fraud lies about 2020 and refused to say they will concede if they lose.
Like Arizona, California was among the 10 states and D.C. that did not hit 90% of their final reported vote total until more than 48 hours after the polls closed in 2020. The main reason is that the state’s elections are almost entirely run through mail-in balloting.
Ballots either mailed or returned to polling places prior to Election Day can be processed and counted before the polls close, but those received on Election Day are not counted until the polls close at 8 p.m. local time. Since California is the most populous state in the country, there are more ballots to open, process and count than any other state.
Those mail ballots also count when they arrive up to seven days after the election so long as they are postmarked by Election Day. Voters whose signatures do not match are allowed to confirm their identities up to two days prior to the certification of the election, which happens 38 days after the election. And there are a larger number of provisional ballots cast in California, which need to be checked to make sure they are valid.
There are at least 11 House races in California that are closely contested. If control for the House is tight and these California races are close, the country may be waiting and watching for all of the state’s ballots to be counted for many days.
This could provide room for propaganda and threats to swamp the election system. Even before 2020, Republicans, including Trump and House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, lied about fraud in California’s 2018 elections.
A result in the Los Angeles mayoral race between Democrat Karen Bass and Republican-turned-Independent Rick Caruso is also likely to remain unknown for days after the election as ballots are verified and counted.
While there were a number of things that slowed down the vote counting in Georgia in 2020 ― including a burst water pipe at the ballot processing center in Fulton County and thin staffing to count votes overnight ― the main reason was just that the election was so close. Biden won the state by just under 12,000 votes. Only Arizona was closer.
If the elections for governor, Senate or House are similarly close, it could take time to count all of the votes. But if not, it may be possible to project the results on election night or in the early morning hours on Wednesday.
One thing to watch in the race between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker is whether one of them gets over 50% of the vote. If neither does, the election will go to a runoff in December.
Despite being one of the 10 states to not report 90% of its final vote total within 48 hours of the polls closing, Illinois was not among the states that Trump lied about in 2020. That’s because Biden won it comfortably. But in 2022, there are four House seats that could change hands.
One of those House seats is held by Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood. In 2020, the Associated Press projected her reelection victory nine days after the election. The long delay was due to the counting of all mail ballots cast in a very close election. In total, 13% of votes in the state were counted after Election Day.
While fewer voters are casting mail ballots in 2022, counting could take days if a significant number of them arrive on Election Day.
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker faces a challenge from Trump-endorsed Republican Darren Bailey, but the polls have given Pritzker a consistent lead. While Bailey previously endorsed the lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent, he did commit to accepting the results whether he wins or loses.
Like Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola, Maine Rep. Jared Golden is one of the very few Democrats who represent a district that Trump won in both 2016 and 2020. And like Alaska, Maine operates a ranked choice voting system that requires all votes be tallied before a winner can be announced.
If the fight for control of the House is close, it could take days to know the winner of Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. In 2018, Golden was announced the winner nine days after Election Day.
In 2020, it took 22 hours after the polls closed before the press called Michigan for Biden. While this was faster than a number of other states, both closely contested and not, it didn’t stop Republicans from lying about election fraud or Trump from calling for the votes in majority-Black Detroit to be invalidated.
One reason it took so long to count ballots is that Republicans in the state legislature refused to pass legislation to allow for pre-processing of mail ballots. Since then, the legislature passed a new law allowing counties to begin processing mail ballots two days ahead of Election Day. This could help speed up the process somewhat, but it depends on how many mail ballots are received on Election Day.
Another thing that could slow down the count is that ballots in Detroit are transported and counted at one central location, which takes up extra time and presents an opportunity for disruption. In 2020, Republicans attempted to disrupt the ballot counting process at TCF Arena in Detroit after Trump and others lied that some kind of fraud was taking place.
GOP candidates for governor, attorney general and secretary of state all refused to accept the results of the 2020 election and stated that they will not necessarily concede if they lose. Kristina Karamo, the GOP secretary of state candidate and a prominent proponent of election lies, has already filed a lawsuit aimed at invalidating mail ballots in Detroit. The lawsuit was dismissed on Monday by a judge who said it would "create the potential harm of disenfranchising tens of thousands of Detroiters."
Nevada was called for Biden four days after Election Day in 2020, making it one of the last states to be called. The main reasons for this were that three-quarters of the state’s population resides in Clark County and those voters predominantly cast their ballots by mail in 2020. Like Arizona, many ballots were returned on Election Day and took longer to process and count than ballots cast earlier.
There are a number of important and close races in the state in 2022, including for governor, senator, secretary of state and control of the state legislature. These are anticipated to be close, which means it is highly likely that a result will not be known for hours or days.
The closer the elections, the more important it is to count every vote before projecting a winner. This could be up to seven days after the election, as ballots postmarked on Election Day are still counted if received up to four days later. Voters are also allowed seven days post-election to correct any errors identified on their ballots. As of Monday, there were over 5,000 mail ballots that needed to be corrected in Clark County alone.
The 2021 gubernatorial election in New Jersey featured a host of problems that significantly delayed the reporting of a final vote total. Election workers across the state had issues with new voting machines and the high number of mail ballots that needed to be verified and counted. If these issues repeat, results for the state’s two competitive House races could take days before they are finalized.
New Jersey enacted legislation to allow election workers to pre-process mail-in ballots, but counting may still take days if many of the hundreds of thousands of ballots requested, but not yet returned, are delivered on Election Day.
It may take some time to get final results for the Pennsylvania races for governor, Senate and House. In 2020, it took four days after the election before Pennsylvania was called for Biden. Like in Michigan, the refusal of Republicans to allow election workers to pre-process mail-in ballots contributed heavily to the extended count.
Unlike Michigan, Republicans did not update the state’s laws after the 2020 election. Election workers still must wait until Election Day to begin processing and counting mail ballots. This will matter a great deal as Democrats are voting by mail at a much higher rate than Republicans, just as they did in 2020. Seventy percent of the million-plus returned mail ballots are from Democrats.
Trump is already preparing to contest Pennsylvania’s election results again, according to Rolling Stone.
Wisconsin actually reported its vote totals faster than the average in 2020 and was called for Biden in less than 24 hours. Still, Trump and Republicans managed to lie about the result by claiming fraud occurred in majority-Black Milwaukee. This year, Tim Michaels, the GOP candidate for governor, and GOP Sen. Ron Johnson refuse to say they will accept the results of their own elections if they lose.
The state remains closely split between supporters of both parties (despite the legislature being gerrymandered into a near-permanent Republican majority). Recent elections have been extremely close. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers won his 2018 race by a little less than 30,000 votes. Biden won the state by just over 20,000 votes, while Trump won in 2016 with just over 23,000 votes.
Wisconsin may not take as long as the other states to finish, but the almost even split between the parties means that everyone should be ready to wait about 24 hours to know who won.