In the days following the November 3 elections, Georgia was one of several states where the number of votes seemed excruciatingly slow. Then came a recount. Ten days passed before the state was named President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., and even after that there was another recount long after the possibility of another outcome existed.
For several reasons, it is unlikely that it will take that long to count the votes in the two runoff elections that will determine control of the Senate, which cross the finish line on Tuesday. It is even possible – but certainly not guaranteed – that we know who won on Tuesday evening or early Wednesday.
Two factors speak for a faster count this time. First, there are fewer races on the ballot, which means less work for election officials. Second, the Georgia State Election Board passed a post-general election rule requiring counties to begin processing early and absent ballot papers at least a week before future elections.
Officials cannot count the ballots until the polls are complete, but they can do any time-consuming prep work. This means that votes cast before election day – according to Gabriel Sterling, one of the leading state election officials – more than three million votes should already be compiled and almost all officials who have to do something on Tuesday evening click on “tabular”.
The new rule allows counties “to do essentially anything but press the button to print the grand total,” said David Worley, the only Democratic member of the State Election Board.
If all goes well, Mr Worley said, “I’d think we had a pretty good idea,” who won at 1am on Wednesday.
The biggest questions are whether everything will actually go smoothly and how close the races will be. Both races are very competitive, but when we know who won, there is a big difference between a two percentage point race and one 0.2 percentage point race.
In an extremely close race, results can be delayed by several days while late-arriving ballots come in. The vast majority of Georgians have to submit their ballots by the end of the polls at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, military and foreign voters have an additional three days Mail their ballots by Tuesday. Then there are preliminary ballot papers, which are cast on election day, but take longer to process because officials have to check the eligibility of each voter.
“Just like in November, Americans are very likely to go to bed without knowing who won,” The Associated Press said in a guide published Monday.
And of course there is always the option of a recount. Under Georgian law, a candidate can apply if the margin is less than half a percentage point. That wouldn’t be surprising: Mr. Biden won the presidential race in November by less than a quarter of a percentage point.
Here, too, the warnings for the November elections apply: Since early and mail-in votes are supposed to favor the Democrats disproportionately and the votes on election day disproportionately favor the Republicans, the first results can be very different from the final ones.
However, by the end of the polls, we will have voter turnout data that may tentatively indicate which direction the races are trending. Democrats count on big numbers in big cities and the increasingly blue suburbs of Atlanta, while Republicans need large numbers of voters in smaller towns, rural areas, and strongholds like Northern Georgia.