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• We found several examples of races in recent history that took days, weeks or months to determine a winner. The 2020 U.S. presidential election is one prominent example.
• Decades ago, news outlets could more quickly project election winners based on unofficial results, because most voting was done in person on Election Day and in many places, machines could count the vote quickly.
• In recent years, voting by mail has become increasingly popular. Because mail ballots require extra handling, counting them can take longer. And varying state laws about when counting can begin can cause differences in timing from state to state.
In the lead-up to the Nov. 8 midterm elections, election officials and experts have been warning voters not to expect ballot counting to produce final results on election night. But social media users continue to suggest that counting could be faster.
"Funny how we could easily count every vote in every state on election night until a few years ago," stated a Nov. 2 Instagram post that was a screenshot of a tweet.
Other social media users and politicians have gone even further by suggesting, falsely, that anything short of immediate results on election night is an indication of wrongdoing or the fault of Democratic-led cities.
We found several examples of races in recent history that took days, weeks or months to determine a winner.
"We have never, in the history of our nation, come close to counting all the votes on election night," said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, in a tweet.
However, the post does contain a kernel of truth that years ago — back when voting by mail was rare — there was a good chance that Americans would go to bed on election night knowing who was projected to win key races, such as those for president or U.S. Senate.
This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)
The 2000 presidential election is a prominent example that countersthe Instagram post’s claim. That election was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 12, 2000, by halting a recount and handing victory to George W. Bush.
In 2008, the Minnesota U.S. Senate race was decided about eight months after Election Day. The initial count took two weeks, showing Republican Norm Coleman with a 215-vote lead over Democrat Al Franken. But an automatic recount led to legal challenges that were eventually decided by the state Supreme Court in Franken’s favor.
In Alaska in 2010, it took about two weeks to declare Lisa Murkowski the winner of her U.S. Senate race. Murkowsi lost a Republican primary to a tea party movement candidate and then mounted a write-in challenge. Alaska‘s huge geographic size and logistical challenges already made a rapid count difficult, and those problems were compounded in Murkowski’s race by the added complications of validating write-in votes.
There’s a difference between election officials counting every vote and media outlets "calling" winners in races based on early ballot counts, historical voting patterns by precinct and surveys of voters leaving the polls.
The Associated Press, one of the key election-calling media outlets, called Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2012 at 11:38 p.m. Eastern time on election night. It also called which party controlled both the Senate and the House within the following two hours.
But that was unusually early for recent presidential elections. In 2016, the AP called Donald Trump’s victory at 2:29 a.m. Eastern time on the day after Election Day. In 2020, the complications of increased mail voting during the pandemic and the narrow margins in many states delayed the official AP call until the Saturday following Election Day at 11:26 a.m. Eastern time.
As for midterm elections, in 2014, the AP warned at 5:36 a.m. Eastern time the day after Election Day that it would not be calling the Senate races for Virginia and Alaska and the gubernatorial races for Connecticut and Colorado because there wasn’t yet sufficient data.
And even when media outlets like The Associated Press are able to call a race on election night or in the wee hours of the following morning, it doesn’t mean that every ballot has been counted in those races. It just means that enough is known about the voting patterns that the AP’s experts feel comfortable, based on the available data, to declare who will win.
Calling the winner quickly does not always depend on the pace of ballot counting. It also depends heavily on how close a race is expected to be. If the vote is close, even an election with little mail balloting can take a long time to call, while some elections with lots of mail balloting can be called quickly if a candidate is expected to win easily.
Some cities or counties, particularly smaller ones, may release unofficial counts on election night. But they may continue their counting for days as officials sort out absentee ballots that were missing a signature on the envelope or ballots that were cast provisionally. State laws set a deadline for official results, and that deadline is never on election night.
"Counting every vote in every state on election night? No way," said Rick Klein, the ABC News political director.
Under many states’ laws, certain types of ballots will inevitably take longer than Election Day to count, such as those for citizens and service members overseas, or provisional ballots that have been cast but that need to have the voter’s status confirmed by election officials before being counted.
The Instagram post has a kernel of truth: The rise in mail balloting has likely made it harder for media outlets to call races on election night. That’s a distinct change from past decades, when most voting was done in person on Election Day.
Before 2000, "we had a pretty good idea who was elected president and which party won Congress by the next day, sometimes on election night itself," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Complicating matters is that some states have limited how early election officials can start processing mail ballots. For example, in Pennsylvania, election officials can’t start until 7 a.m. on Election Day.
That said, having a large number of mail ballots doesn’t automatically mean a long wait for results.
In Colorado, where nearly everyone casts a mail ballot, county clerks can start processing ballots 15 days before Election Day and then begin uploading results as soon as the polls close. That has allowed the state to show enough unofficial results for most contests to be called by media outlets on election night.
An Instagram post said the U.S. "could easily count every vote in every state on election night until a few years ago."
The increased use of voting by mail in recent elections has slowed ballot counting.
However, the claim is too sweeping and ignores examples of recent national or statewide contests that remained undecided for weeks or months after Election Day.
Some cities or counties may release unofficial counts on election night, but they usually continue counting for days as officials sort out absentee ballots or provisional ballots. States’ deadline for official results is not on Election Day.
The biggest factor in news outlets’ ability to call a race is not the number of ballots counted but the competitiveness of the race.
We rate the statement Mostly False.
AEI and MIT Election Data and Science Lab, Lessons LEarned from the 2020 election report to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, September 2021
Ohio State University law professor Edward Foley and MIT political scientist Charles Stewart III, Explaining the blue shift in election canvassing, March 27, 2020
Colorado Public Radio, Colorado Election Day 2020, As It Happened, Nov. 3, 2020
NPR, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Spell Check And All, Is Declared The Winner In Alaska, Nov. 17, 2010
Alaska Public Media, Here’s why Alaska is the slowest in the nation when it comes to counting votes, Nov. 6, 2020
David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, Tweet, Nov. 2, 2022
MIT News, How many votes will be counted after election night? Oct. 15, 2020
Town and Country, Which Presidential Election Took the Longest to Decide? Nov. 6, 2020
Email interview with Charles Stewart III, MIT political science professor, Nov. 3, 2022
Email interview with Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, Nov. 3, 2022
Email interview with Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Nov. 3, 2022
Email interview with Rick Klein, political director at ABC News, Nov. 3, 2022
Email interview with Lauren Easton, director of media relations for the Associated Press, Nov. 3, 2022
Email interview, John C. Fortier, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Nov. 3, 2022
Email interview, Annie Orloff, Colorado Secretary of State spokesperson, Nov. 3, 2022
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