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What To Expect When You're Expecting Today's Election Results

Scrabble tiles spell out the word "vote." (Glen Carrie/Unsplash)
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Based on reporting by Aaron Mendelson, Sharon McNary, Libby Denkmann and NPR.

Take a deep breath of our momentarily (mostly) smoke-free air and gather your patience. Most results for this election, whether local or national, aren't going to be definitively called today. That's the case in many elections -- but in politically fraught, COVID-hobbled 2020, that's truer than ever.

Election officials have already received an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots -- 2.9 million in Los Angeles County, more than a million in Orange County and nearly 600,000 in Riverside County, as of November 2. That number shoots up to more than 100 million ballots across the United States.

As LAist/KPCC reporter Aaron Mendelson points out, "It takes weeks to tally every ballot, and that means we may not know the precise turnout figures until after Thanksgiving."

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California has more than 20 million registered voters and an election system designed to maximize participation, not speedy tabulation.

Phillip Verbera, manager for community outreach for the L.A. County Registrar's office, shows a locked metal cage full of sealed bags of mail-in ballots that were collected from some of the 400 ballot drop boxes around L.A. County. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

How Do We Report Election Numbers?

Although the polls don't close until 8 p.m. on Tuesday night, you might see some media outlets making prognostications before then. At LAist and KPCC, we try to avoid that. We can't tell you what we don't know and we don't want to give you incorrect information.

Also, we don't like to call races as long as the polls are still open because it can demoralize people and make them feel like their vote doesn't matter. This is especially true here on the West Coast, where the polls don't close until hours after the last voters on the East Coast have pulled the lever.

Our goal is not to sway any race in any way. We want to help you understand the voting process and to provide you accurate information in real time.

We rely on the Associated Press for our election results. As NPR explains, "The decision to call a race revolves around one simple question: Does the trailing candidate have a viable path to victory? In some cases, the answer is a simple no... It's the more competitive races where things become tricky. Those are the races that take longer to call."

Mail-in ballots that are waiting for voters to send in matching signatures are held in this space in the mail-in ballot processing center at the Fairplex in Pomona. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

What Will We Know And When Will We Know It?

The earliest that any L.A. County voting results will be announced is between 8:15 and 9 p.m. on Tuesday night. Those numbers will be based on mail-in ballots, which get counted first.

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Workers will continue counting ballots and updating the totals Tuesday night and into early Wednesday morning until all the votes delivered from precincts are received and counted.

L.A. County officials will announce the next set of totals on Friday. Those updated figures could include ballots dropped off at vote centers on Election Day as well as mail-in ballots that were received too late to be signature-verified on Tuesday. Provisional ballots may also be part of that count, because the registrar has to verify that the person submitting the provisional ballot did not cast an earlier vote by mail, drop box or at another vote center.

In Orange County, registrar Neal Kelley told KPCC that at 8:05 p.m. Tuesday night, he'll announce the tally for all of the ballots received in his office through midnight last night.

In Riverside County, vote-by-mail results will be released at approximately 8:15 p.m. At approximately 9 p.m., early voting and mid-day ballot pick up results will be released. At approximately 10 p.m., results from the first voter assistance center will be released. Hourly voter assistance center results will be updated until 1 a.m.
After 1 a.m. Updated voter assistance center results will be released every 90 minutes.

Workers extract mail-in ballots from their envelopes at the mail-in ballot processing center at the Pomona Fairplex on October 28, 2020. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

California is huge. Counting all those votes is complicated in the best of times. With the 2020 election, many political analysts think key races -- including the Presidency -- won't be called until early next week.

Many analysts also expect higher than average voter turnout and, due to the coronavirus pandemic, a much higher percentage of those ballots will have been sent in by mail.

In California, vote-by-mail ballots that are postmarked on or by Nov. 3 must be counted, even if they arrive up to 17 days after the election.

County officials have up to 30 days to certify election results as accurate and final and report them to California's Secretary of State. Depending on how close some races are, they might need all that time. So there's a chance we might not know some election results until after Thanksgiving.

A series of boxes hold the opened ballot envelopes and the ballots in Los Angeles County. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

How Do Mail-In Ballots Get Counted?

After you vote by mail, your ballot goes to a central post office where it's picked up by a pair of election workers and trucked to Building 9 at the Fairplex in Pomona. You may know this site as the home of the L.A. County Fair. (Well, not this year.)

Any ballots that have been placed into the 400 drop boxes around L.A. County and any ballots dropped off at vote centers also come to the fairgrounds and get processed the same way.

Here, county workers sort the ballot envelopes by hand, turn them so they're facing the same direction and then feed them into a machine that scans the signatures.

This machine creates a digital image of each signature and compares it to the signature the county has on file for that person in its voter database.

If the signatures don't match, a red light goes on and the ballot envelope gets sent to a human. A county worker at a different machine looks at an image of the signature on the ballot envelope and compares it to the signature in the voter database.

An election worker sits at a machine that checks a ballot envelope signature against the collection of signatures the voter has on file with the registrar's office. (Sharon McNary/LAist)

Once the signature on the envelope has been verified, the ballot finally comes out of its envelope.

A worker looks it over to make sure it's not stained and has no stray marks that might keep the machine from properly counting it. If there's a problem, two workers carefully create a clean, duplicate ballot that can be counted.

Once the ballots are ready for counting, they're packed into boxes of approximately 1,000 ballots per box. Each box is sealed with packing tape that has inventory control numbers on it. Those numbers are recorded to make sure nothing goes missing. These boxes then go to a county office in Downey where the counting machines are located.

Some of these ballots might be run through the counting machines in the days before the election -- but no results can be totaled or publicly shared until the polls close.

As soon as the polls close, at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night, the mail-in and drop-off ballots that have been processed beforehand are the first to be counted and the first totals to be reported.

This year, that's going to be a much higher number of ballots than normal. The results from the first wave of counted ballots could be reported at around 9 p.m. on Tuesday night.

Got more questions about voting by mail? We've got answers.

People vote on the last day of early voting for the 2020 U.S. presidential elections at The Forum on November 2, 2020 in Inglewood. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

How Do In-Person Ballots Get Counted?

If you vote in-person at your local polling place, your ballot is bundled into a box with other ballots, in the same way mail-in ballots are. These boxes of in-person ballots get escorted by Sheriff's cars and helicopters from all over L.A. County to the vote counting building in Downey.

As ballots arrive, they get counted the same way the mail-in ballots get counted.

Want to watch? The L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk's office has a bunch of cameras that will livestream the ballot transport, ballot inspection room, tally room and main entrance to the ballot processing facility. It's more exciting than C-SPAN.

Want more info on voting? Head to ourVoter Game Plan: