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VERIFY: Votes don’t have to be counted by end of Election Day

The final vote tallies often don't come until well after Election Day in most elections.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly contended in recent weeks that the country should know who wins on election night and that votes shouldn’t necessarily be counted after Election Day. 

“I think it’s a terrible thing when ballots can be collected after an election,” he said on Nov. 1 as he criticized a U.S. Supreme Court decision that Pennsylvania can keep tallying absentee ballots after Election Day if they are postmarked by Nov. 3. 

The president claimed that counting ballots after Election Day opens the door to fraud, threatening that “we’re going to go in with our lawyers” to stop the count.

THE QUESTION 

Do votes have to be counted by the end of election night?

THE ANSWER

No. In fact, states rarely finish final tallies by the end of Election Day.

WHAT WE FOUND

There is no specific federal cutoff for counting ballots, other than that states must have results ready by the time the Electoral College votes in December. This year, that’s Dec. 14. That allows enough time for states to resolve any disputes over the ballots.

States vary on the deadlines for mail-in or absentee ballots; in California, as long as the envelope is postmarked no later than Election Day, the ballot can take 17 days to arrive and still be counted. Some states also don’t start counting ballots received by mail until Election Day, and the process typically takes longer because the ballots must be removed from envelopes and verified.

Another issue is one of geography: The U.S. encompasses four time zones on the mainland; Alaska is four hours and Hawaii five hours behind Eastern time. So when it’s midnight in New York, it’s 8 p.m. in Alaska. So, Election Day is technically already over on the East Coast by the time the last polls are closing.

Perhaps the most contentious vote count in a presidential election was that between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden. Ballots were cast Nov. 7, 1876, but, because of disputes, the final result did not come until Feb. 1, 1877, when an appointed electoral commission gave Hayes the win by one vote. He took office on March 3, 1877.

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