Why Are the Election Results Taking So Long?

Five things to know about the vote count.

A black-and-white photo of voting booths
Alex Wroblewski / Getty

The 2022 election is here, and up for grabs are all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, 35 Senate seats, and 36 governorships (plus plenty of big local races, including for Los Angeles mayor). Nationally, Republicans have a chance to flip both houses of Congress, but some key races are very close.

When can you expect results? Will some contests drag on for days, like the 2020 presidential election did? When will we know who won the Senate? I talked with a few experts about what to expect from this year’s Election Day, and below are five takeaways.

1. Some races might not be called on Election Night. That’s normal.

Election Night is not a term that’s used in the United States Constitution,” David Becker, the executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, told me. “Throughout our history, we’ve always taken days or weeks to count all the ballots.”

In the meantime, the media can use what results do come in to project outcomes based on patterns already apparent in the voting. If a race is particularly tight, media outlets might not be able to call it one way or another.

Be patient, Becker advised. He told me he doesn’t blame voters for wanting results the night of: “I want to know who won at 8:01 p.m. We all want to know.” He offered some practical advice instead: “Look, pour yourself a cocktail or a decaffeinated coffee, and be grateful for the information that we do know.”

2. Even so, you can still sometimes guesstimate what races will be called when.

On a race-by-race basis, a number of factors dictate how long it might take for people to get the answers they crave. Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the elections program at the Democracy Fund and a former Arizona election official, offered me four “Ps” to look for when trying to assess when you’ll get results: polls, preprocessing, provisional ballots, and people. The first one is pretty straightforward: If the polls are tight in a particular race, that suggests the race is close; the media may not feel comfortable calling it on Election Night, so results may take longer.

The second P (really a double P) stands for preprocessing, which has to do with when states can begin counting mail-in or absentee ballots. In some states—for example, most of the West Coast—officials are allowed to start tallying votes right away (sometimes weeks ahead of Election Day); others require officials to wait before tearing open those envelopes. (These “wait” rules made some sense when such ballots made up a small percentage of overall votes—chain of custody is important, and you don’t want results leaking early. But when, say, half of the votes are cast this way, “suddenly, the ‘don't touch it’ rule causes these hugely difficult collateral consequences,” Edward Foley, the director of election law at Ohio State University, told me.) Preprocessing speeds up the counting process, especially as more people vote by mail (like in 2020).

Then comes provisional ballots. These are ballots cast on Election Day that officials need to look at before deciding whether they count. For example, someone who moved but didn’t update their address on their voter registration would cast a provisional ballot. So might someone who forgot to bring their ID to their local polling place: A state might allow a voter 10 days to provide it, for example. These ballots definitionally are counted later.

Last is people—specifically, how they cast their ballots. If more people opt for mail-in options this year and get those ballots in early, states with preprocessing could count more votes by Election Day, which would allow media outlets to feel more confident in their projections.

3. Americans might have to wait some time before the Senate’s fate is known.

This year, a few Senate races are close, and the body’s governing majority may hinge on just one or two seats. Becker told me that his opinion may be unpopular, but he doesn’t think Americans will know who will control the Senate (or the House) until days after the election. They certainly won’t know today, he said: “You will almost definitely not know the answer to that question by the time you go to bed on Election Night … It’s possible, but unlikely.”

Amy Walter, the publisher and editor in chief of the Cook Political Report, isn’t sure when we’ll know. Georgia’s Senate race is so close that it may trigger an automatic runoff, which wouldn’t happen until December. That’s expected, Walter told me, and “the only question is whether or not that’s going to determine control. If there are enough seats already in the bank for one side or the other, it will matter, of course—but it doesn’t become as consequential.”

4. That doesn’t mean we won’t know anything.

The results that do come in may signal the deeper dynamics at play, Walter said. For example, Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan is favored to win reelection in New Hampshire. “If she loses, that now tells you this is going to be a big night for Republicans,” Walter said. “On the other hand, if a Democrat wins in North Carolina or Tim Ryan wins in Ohio, well, holy cow … That says, Oh, well, this evening is not turning out to be so much of a red wave.”

The first batch of states close their polls at 7 p.m. ET, followed by big groups at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. ET. This FiveThirtyEight infographic offers a state-by-state look at when results can be expected, based on the 2022 primaries. The Washington Post has a similarly useful guide.

Should you tune in for the hour-by-hour drama? Walter said the answer is akin to whether you’re the kind of person who wants to watch an entire baseball game or just the highlights: It depends on what you’re into. If you do decide to tune in for the whole thing, she recommends remembering that, just like in a sports game, the overall picture may fluctuate throughout the night.

5. Beware of disinformation.

In 2020, Donald Trump denied that he’d lost the election, making false accusations of fraud and launching an antidemocratic campaign to overturn the result. Since then, Republicans have followed his lead, meaning hundreds of election deniers are on the ballot. Some experts are concerned that they could try to undermine democracy. “Don’t allow grifters and losing candidates to exploit your natural anxiety and impatience,” Becker cautioned.

Patrick told me that Americans should be wary of candidates who declare victory in close races before we have a good sense of who won, as well as those who preemptively say that they won’t trust an election’s results (as some have already hinted). “We’ve gotten into this cycle now where we have candidates that don’t concede when they lose,” she explained.

Christopher Thomas, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center who was Michigan’s director of elections for 36 years, is feeling “moderately optimistic” that the election will go smoothly overall. Officials, he told me, have “learned a lot about the game that Trump played” as well as how to handle mass voting by mail. He told me he’s kind of skeptical of whether any Senate or gubernatorial candidate has the charisma to sow doubt the way Trump did—with perhaps the exception of Arizona’s Kari Lake, who is running for governor. Thomas cited the example of Ryan Kelley, the January 6 participant who came in fourth in Michigan’s race for governor and whose refusal to concede despite losing by 270,000 votes went nowhere. Thomas also reminded me that there’s no Electoral College this time around, so “there’s not a big stage set.”

Foley, for his part, is confident that the judiciary will reject any baseless lawsuits that may arise from the results, as they did in 2020. Still, he believes that such meritless challenges undermine public trust. “Counting ballots and declaring winners depends on a shared willingness to acknowledge what the facts of the ballots show, what the numbers count up to be, and the process of evaluating any possible claims that some of the ballots may not be eligible to be counted,” he told me. “There’s no such thing as a post-truth democracy.”