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This Year, Election Results May Take Longer Everywhere — By Design


Democrats across the nation have been waiting for months to cast their votes in the presidential nominating contests. As we learned Monday in Iowa, getting the results is not always straightforward. Marisa Lagos from member station KQED in San Francisco explains why Iowa won't be the only state taking its sweet time to call winners and why that may actually be a good thing.

MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: No one seemed prepared for the debacle in Iowa.



UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: We still don't have any results.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: We don't have any results from Iowa.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: It's been a very long night, unexpectedly so. We are still waiting for these results...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: There are still so many questions about what happened in Iowa.

LAGOS: Experts say Americans may want to get used to waiting. In many states, a delay of days or even weeks won't be the result of a botched election, but instead proof that the process is working.

Kathleen Hale is director of the Institute for Election Administration Research and Practice at Auburn University.

KATHLEEN HALE: If we counted at the moment the polls closed, we would disenfranchise people. It's simple as that. And if we expect to have a count within four or five hours after the polls close, we need a much more sophisticated and, quite frankly, expensive infrastructure to make that even remotely possible.

LAGOS: Hale notes that the vast majority of states have primaries, unlike Iowa and its caucuses. It's a difference that California Secretary of State Alex Padilla emphasized after the Iowa debacle.

ALEX PADILLA: Unlike caucuses, which are led by political parties and volunteers, elections in California are administered by elections professionals.

LAGOS: That's true in all states with primaries, but every state's election laws are also slightly different. Hale says those varying laws mean that how, when and where people vote can diverge widely across the nation.

HALE: In person on Election Day, probably half the country will vote differently this time. And the reason for that is that we've done a number of things to make voting easier and more convenient for people. Those conveniences have a sort of a backside cost.

LAGOS: That cost? It takes longer to count the vote. In California, for example, vote-by-mail ballots don't have to reach county elections officials until three days after the election as long as they're postmarked by Election Day. In 2018, it took weeks for some races to be decided in California. Voters here and in 16 other states can also now register the day of an election, but they'll be casting a provisional ballot that won't be counted until it's reviewed by officials.

RUSTY HICKS: We in California believe in a complete and accurate count. It is always better than a fast count.

LAGOS: Rusty Hicks is chair of the California Democratic Party, which has pushed to expand voting rights here, changes that have also made vote counting a weeks-long process.

HICKS: And so I think everyone has to walk into Election Day understanding that it will be a significant portion of the vote that is not available, that is not accessible, that cannot be counted on election night.

LAGOS: Another wrinkle standing in the way of a quick primary election night outcome - delegate math. Each state apportions delegates differently, but in most cases, all the votes have to be tallied in order to sort out how many delegates each candidate has captured. But Hale says patience isn't really our strong suit these days, either in the media or the general public. She says she was concerned by the reaction on cable news Monday night.

HALE: I was as disappointed as anybody not to be able to see, you know, the counties in Iowa marked up, to understand what was happening. But I think it's important for us to understand that democracy takes time.

LAGOS: So next election night, take some deep breaths and prepare to keep waiting.

For NPR News, I'm Marisa Lagos in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.