us elections: how long before the final results?

Despite U.S. President Donald Trump calling for votes already cast to stop being counted, hundreds of thousands of Americans’ ballots are still being tabulated to determine whether he is re-elected or Democratic challenger Joe Biden will clinch a tight victory.

It’s not the first time an American election has remained too close to call well into the day after election day.

Why is that? And how long could it be still before the next United States president is known?

This is a break down of the path ahead to the needed 270 electoral college votes and what further complicating role the American court system could play.

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  •  Live updates: U.S. Election Results 2020

Broadly speaking, unlike in Canada where one central elections agency runs all elections in the 338 federal ridings, in the United States each state is a master of its own electoral destiny. In response to COVID-19, state legislators took differing approaches to how ballots would be cast and counted in a pandemic.

As a result, and as was flagged by electoral officials in the days and weeks leading up to Nov. 3, several key states have needed more time to scrutinize the outstanding ballots.

For example, the number of outstanding mail-in ballots in Nevada is difficult to estimate as the state opted to automatically mail ballots to all active registered voters this year and it’s hard to predict how many will use them.

“Things have changed with mail-in voting… Counting votes cast by mail—if you’re going to do it right and you’re going to do it accurately because there’s no other choice— takes a little bit of time. So, I know that’s very frustrating. It’s frustrating for you, it’s frustrating for us,” said Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt on Wednesday.

Chair of Philadelphia City Commissioners Lisa Marie Deeley referred to the process as “an assembly line,” where ballots need to be sorted, opened, unfolded, and then scanned.


According to The Associated Press, as of 2:30 p.m. EST on Thursday, five states are still sorting through uncounted ballots, with the votes counted so far showing a too-close-to-call result. Between them are 60 electoral votes, of which Trump needs 56 to secure a victory, while Biden needs to lock in six.

  •  A full explainer on The Associated Press’ election call decision-making process

GEORGIA: With 99 per cent of votes counted, results are expected Thursday. Trump currently leads by fewer than 13,000 votes but the state remains very much in play. An estimated 47,000 mail-in votes are left to be counted, most of which come from left-leaning districts in Atlanta and Savannah where Biden holds a sizeable advantage. Asked when the results will be final, election official Gabriel Sterling said Thursday afternoon that “done is a very relative term at this point” and that vote counters are doing their best. There are 16 electoral college votes up for grabs in this state.

NEVADA: With 76 per cent of votes counted, results could come as early as Thursday but it may take more time. Biden currently holds a one-point lead. Election officials in Clark County, the state’s largest district which includes Las Vegas, plan to release the next batch of results on Friday. There are six electoral college votes up for grabs in this state.

PENNSYLVANIA: With 88 per cent of votes counted, results are expected by Friday but could come earlier. Trump leads by a little more than 100,000 votes with 500,000 left to be counted, according to Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar. She told CNN in an interview Thursday that “we definitely could” know the winner in the state by the end of the day. The vast majority of outstanding votes are mail-in ballots from the Philadelphia area, where Biden has considerably outpaced Trump. There are 20 electoral college votes up for grabs in this state.

NORTH CAROLINA: With 94 per cent of votes counted, results could still take until next week to be finalized. There are 15 electoral college votes up for grabs in this state.

ALASKA: With just 50 per cent of the vote counted, results could take until next week to be announced. There are three electoral college votes up for grabs in this state.

The Associated Press declared Joe Biden the winner of Arizona early Wednesday, but most other major news networks have yet to follow suit. An estimated 450,000 ballots remain to be counted.

AP said Thursday it is still monitoring the vote count in Arizona. Another round of votes is expected to be reported Thursday night from Maricopa County, the largest county in the state.

“The Associated Press continues to watch and analyze vote count results from Arizona as they come in,” said Sally Buzbee, AP’s executive editor. “We will follow the facts in all cases.”


With so much at stake and already such a fractiously contested election, both Republican and Democratic legal teams are gearing up for a series of court battles that could drag out the final declaration of results well past when all votes are counted and reported.

Trump has already threatened to take the election to the U.S. Supreme Court, hinting he is hopeful for a favourable outcome on account for the recently-secured Republican majority among its benches.

The U.S. Supreme Court ended up deciding the result of the 2000 presidential election, which led to Republican George W. Bush winning the presidency. In that instance, the winner wasn’t clear for more than a month.

However, it is not possible for Trump to take the matter directly to the top court in that country claiming overall election fraud.

Republicans would have to allege vote-counting problems in individual states and take their legal fight from lower courts up, which they are already setting the groundwork for by filing a series of legal challenges in key states. 

Under U.S. federal law, states have until Dec. 8 to finalize their ballot count. Moreover, the electoral college does not actually “meet” until the Monday after the second Wednesday in December to award their votes. This year, that meeting is on Dec. 14.

The inauguration of the next U.S. president is scheduled for Jan. 20, 2021.

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