Arizona election results often take days. It's normal with the state's long history of mail voting

You can do work quickly, or you can do it accurately. And for counting votes, the emphasis is on accuracy.

That means it's possible the outcomes of close races won't be known on election night, and that's not unusual for Arizona nor an indication that the system has failed.

During the 2018 election cycle, the winner of the state's U.S. Senate race wasn't known until six days later. On election night that year, the race for Arizona secretary of state was mistakenly called for the person who ultimately lost once all the ballots were counted.

Already, election officials and people in both parties are getting the word out to voters that a night-of result may not be possible in close races.

“As much as we all want to see the winner on election night in those races, it’s just not going to happen. Elections are complicated,” Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said Oct. 14.

Arizona has a few factors working in its favor that could mean a faster vote count than some other states: There is a long history of voting by mail, people are turning in ballots early at higher rates than normal, and a new law allows election officials to start counting the early ballots sooner. 

But allowing multiple voting methods on many days, which means wider accessibility for voters, can mean a more complex counting process. And several races could be close, a sign of Arizona's increasing position as a competitive, purpling state.

"I think people actually should take solace in knowing that election officials will take their time and make sure that they get the count right," said Samara Klar, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

Arizona is just one piece of the national puzzle, though.

Elections experts nationally have repeatedly cautioned that results may not be known for the presidential race on election night, given the contest could be close and many states will be voting by mail at higher numbers.

How votes are counted in Arizona

The first results voters will see on Election Day will show early ballots counted during the preceding days and weeks, Hobbs said. They get posted online just after 8 p.m. at results.arizona.vote.

Subsequent reports later in the evening will include ballots cast at polling places on Election Day.

But the election does not end there, Hobbs added.

Mail ballots dropped off on Election Day must go through the same process as all of the other mail ballots, for example. This happens every election.

To verify the authenticity of these ballots, election officials match the signature on the envelope with signatures on file in voter registration records. And if a signature does not match, they reach out to that voter and provide time to verify that they actually voted.

“We are expecting a lot of voters, as is usual, to drop off their ballots on Election Day,” Hobbs said.

Election officials have also had to grapple with backlogs of mail ballots received before Election Day but not processed in time to be part of the first batch of results.

As more Arizonans have opted to vote by mail, these ballots have flooded elections offices faster than workers could count them in some years.

After Election Day, officials have in the past posted regular updates late each afternoon or evening with the latest results from their ongoing counting.

In past years, election officials also were hampered in part by a law that only let them start counting votes one week prior to Election Day.

But the state Legislature has changed that law, and vote counting can now start two weeks prior to Election Day. That started Tuesday.

Maricopa County has also upgraded equipment to process ballots faster.

Officials in much of the state have been optimistic that the extra time will make a big difference. Still, this year has been unpredictable.

“I think that would have been great if they hadn’t also extended the voter registration deadline,” said Lynn Constabile, elections director in Yavapai County.

A federal judge’s decision on the day of the voter registration deadline to give voters more time to sign up meant some staff who would have processed mail ballots had to continue working instead on the county’svoter registration list, she said.

That decision was subsequently curtailed by a higher federal court. The extended voter registration period netted 35,000 newly registered Arizona voters.

Constabile said she expected her department would catch up nonetheless, but she added that ballots are arriving quickly.

Will it take longer this year?

If past is any precedent, the outcome of close races won't be known on election night. Not all votes are counted that night.

"No one should be staying up late at night ready to find out, people should get to bed and just live your life, because it's going to be at least, I would say, several days at least until we know," Klar said.

Results for state offices or ballot measures aren't certified until the official canvass on the fourth Monday following a general election, according to state law. This year, that's Nov. 30.

But news organizations, pollsters and candidates will often project winners before the official canvass, based on how results are coming back and the number of outstanding votes left to count.

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Some recent polls have shown the presidential race and U.S. Senate race may not end up as close in Arizona as some expect, which may mean the worry over delayed election results won't come to fruition, said Thomas Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona and the former mayor of Tucson.

He thinks Arizona could know the winners of those races by election night or the next morning. But, if not, it's nothing out of the ordinary. During one of his own campaigns in the past, the results weren't known for a week and a half, he said.

"The world didn't come to an end," he said.

In Arizona, voting processes aren't much different this year than they have been in the past, considering our longstanding practice of voting by mail and the increasing numbers of Arizonans who use that practice, he said. But the pandemic seems to have exacerbated people's fears about many things, and election results is one of them, he said.

"We would all like instant gratification. ... And it's quite possible that we are going to have a huge instant gratification problem. But that's our problem; it's not the problem of those who are counting the ballots. They just need to do their jobs and need to do their jobs well as possible," Volgy said.

He suggested watching the numbers of ballots returned a week or several days out from Election Day. If most ballots are returned by that time, the counting process should be quite smooth, Volgy predicted.

Differences by political party expected

This year's particularities could create unusual patterns that voters should be aware of when watching results.

A poll by Suffolk University and the USA TODAY Network found Democrats in Arizona were more likely than Republicans to vote by mail this year.

If mail ballots are not counted until later on Election Day, or in the following days, that could mean Republicans are overrepresented in initial results and a bulk of Democratic votes are reported later, creating what some analysts refer to as a “red mirage” — leads for Republican candidates that narrow or disappear.

But with extra time to count ballots before Election Day, it is possible that voters could see a very different trend in Arizona and other states with experience in mail voting.

Michael P. McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, expects a similar pattern in a few states, like Florida and North Carolina.

“These states will report quickly their mail ballots that arrived before Election Day and in-person early votes,” McDonald said.

And the opposite effect could happen. If Democrats are overrepresented in the first batch of results, Democratic candidates may appear to have leads that shrink as Election Day votes are counted.

“Throughout the remainder of the evening, Trump will catch up in the Election Day vote," McDonald said of states where this pattern could play out. "He could overtake Biden, but only to see the votes shift back when the mail that arrived on Election Day is added to the counts."

Both major political parties in Arizona emphasized the importance of counting votes fairly, especially given the expected competitiveness of elections here this year.

The Arizona Republican Party expects some close races to take extra time, spokesman Zachery Henry said via email.

"Most times the results are known on election night, but for some highly-contested offices we expect it could take some extra time, depending on the processing rate by each of the counties. This isn't new or unexpected. What’s important is for every legal ballot to be counted and we're working hard to ensure that remains the case," Henry said.

On the Democratic side, the Biden campaign said it trusted the process put in place by elections officials.

"We expect this to be a competitive election, and we have confidence that Arizona's elections officials will count the vote quickly, efficiently and fairly, given the new changes this year to Vote-by-Mail processing," said Geoff Burgan, the Biden campaign's Arizona spokesman.

Reach reporter Rachel Leingang by email at rachel.leingang@gannett.com or by phone at 602-444-8157, or find her on Twitter and Facebook.