How long will it take to tally votes this year?

  • Peterborough's 2020 Town Meeting was conducted via ballot voting at the Community Center on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (BEN CONANT / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Poll workers in Peterborough partially process absentee ballots on Friday in advance of Tuesday's primary elections. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 11/2/2020 5:42:49 PM

After the polls close Tuesday, many Americans will observe the nail-biting tradition of watching maps of the US fill with color as counts roll in, precinct by precinct, across the country. Although national media outlets — or the candidates themselves — may predict a winner that night, a final total could take days (or weeks, a la 2000) to assemble. In a year where COVID-19 protocol and record levels of absentee ballots are factoring in, how long can a Monadnock region resident expect it to take for their vote to be officially tallied?

Two residents recently approached Peterborough Town Moderator L. Phillips Runyon, asking whether it was possible that the election could be “called” before their ballots were counted. It’s the work of media outlets, not moderators, to identify a likely winner, Runyon said, but he said he felt confident that all votes cast in person or by mail in Peterborough would be tabulated and forwarded to the Secretary of State’s office by the end of the night. “It may be late, but it will be that night,” he said.

How long does it take for a town to count votes? It largely depends on a town’s population and whether there’s access to a ballot counting machine, Runyon said.

Could COVID-19 protocols change the time it takes to tally? This year’s influx of absentee ballots actually made the counting process faster during the state primaries in Dublin this year, Moderator Tim Clark said. The town took advantage of the state’s offer to pre-process absentee ballots ahead of time, he said, which was four hours of work that didn’t have to happen on election day. Even though the absentee ballots themselves weren’t opened until official polling hours began, the advance work allowed them to identify and even contact one voter who failed to sign the required affidavit in time for her to correct the problem, he said. The pre-processing also eliminated the need for Clark to read absentee voters’ names out loud to poll workers over the din in the top floor of Town Hall during voting hours, as he’d done in years past. 

For towns like Peterborough, which has a ballot machine, the pre-processing work means poll workers just have to feed absentee ballots into the machine whenever they have a free moment during polling hours, Runyon said. That might take all day, since Peterborough has received more than 1,500 absentee ballots so far, he said, but he felt confident the work could be completed by the time the polls closed.

Towns that hand-count ballots may take longer to deliver results, Runyon said. Sharon is one such town, but Clerk Jane Murray said she expects the counting to be done by 9 p.m. In Francestown, which has roughly four times more people than Sharon, Moderator Kevin Pobst said he expects the hand-count to go to 11 p.m., at least.

“We’d keep counting until we were done,” he said. “It’s a rather boring and tedious procedure, but we would keep plugging until we we’re done.”

In Dublin, Clark was less willing to hazard an estimate for the hand-count.

“This whole election season, I don’t know what to expect. I’m completely at sea about this,” he said. Clark expects at least twice the number of votes cast in September’s state primary, but also knows he’s unlikely to see some of the 15 or 20 newly-minted voters from Dublin School, as in years past, since the campus is completely quarantining and students have likely mailed ballots back to their hometowns. “I’d be happy if we can finish by midnight,” he said, adding he likes the town’s low-tech system. “It’s really hard to hack a paper ballot and... a wooden box,” he said.

Ultimately, a moderator’s concern lies less with how long it takes to get a final tally submitted and more with what happens at the polls during polling hours, Clark said. “I’m begging voters to be kind, and patient, and forgiving, and respectful,” he said. “I’ve never been more proud of the Dublin electorate because they were all those things,” during September’s state primary, he said. “I’m crossing my fingers for a similar experience next Tuesday.”

What happens after the count?

Did you know that towns guard their physical copy of ballot count totals under lock and key before a State Trooper hand delivers them to the Secretary of State’s office the next day? The Peterborough Police Department has stored surrounding towns’ physical counts in their evidence locker on election night for at least 35 years, Police Chief Scott Guinard said, at the request of the Secretary of State. Peterborough’s station is the obvious destination for police officers or Town Clerks to deliver results from about six other towns since it has 24-hour coverage, Guinard said, and a designated State Trooper retrieves the results at 5 a.m. the next morning and drives them to Concord. “Basically, he’s securing a safe and documented chain of custody,” Guinard said.

If the process seems a little cloak and dagger to you, the physical copies aren’t the only way towns report results: Hancock election officials also fax and email totals to the state office, Hancock Moderator Rick Haskins said. Individual ballots are sealed and secured within a town building, he said: it’s only the final counts that get returned to Concord, along with pre-programmed tablets for voters with disabilities, and that’s only for Presidential, state primary, and state general elections, he said. Sharon, Greenfield, and Francestown are among the other towns planning to deliver their counts to Peterborough, according to their elections officials. Some send their results via police officer while other Town Clerks do it themselves, Guinard said.


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