Why postal votes are one of the reasons we've not got a US election result yet

The 2020 election looks like it will have the highest turn out in decades. Credit: AP

We still don't know who has won the US presidential election, despite previous votes usually knowing a result in America the morning after polls close - why is it taking so long this time round?

The 2020 US General Election is unprecedented for many reasons, but the way different ways people have voted is central to why it is taking so long to get a result.

What's different this time?

Early voting numbers are through the roof

An unprecedented 103.2 million people cast their ballots early in this year’s presidential election.

The numbers of early voters represent 74.3% of the total turnout in the 2016 election.

Several states, including Texas and Arizona, exceeded the total vote of four years ago.

In Kentucky, nearly 13 times as many voters cast their ballots early this year than in 2016.

The reason early voting numbers are so high are varied, but the biggest is undoubtedly the coronavirus pandemic.

People have been voting in person early in polling stations or by mail in order to avoid crowded places on election day.

Counting all these votes takes time.

Votes are still being counted across the country. Credit: AP

Why is it taking so long?

All states allow some form of early voting, be it by casting votes in person at polling places, voting by mail, or both. 

High numbers of early votes could mean it might take longer to get results.

Postal votes also take longer to process that votes cast in person.

Election workers must remove the ballots from their envelopes, check for errors, sort them and flatten them — all before they can be run through scanners the moment polls close and they can start to be tabulated.

Some states let election clerks get a head start in verifying early votes, but in some of the key presidential battleground states, they aren’t allowed to do that meaning the early votes get counted later.

The pandemic changed the course of the election. Credit: AP

There are three important battlegrounds with restrictions on when the postal votes can be processed - Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

All three states still had not declared their winner by early on Wednesday morning.

It could take days for the victor to emerge, with officials saying counting could continue throughout the week in the key states of Michigan and Pennsylvania.

This is a problem because it could mean the states that decide the election would delay the final result for days, creating a period of huge uncertainty.

President Trump has already threatened to take the situation to the Supreme Court, although it is not exactly clear what his complaint would be.

Why have early voting and postal votes become controversial?

As counts across the nation were underway President Trump made a speech at the White House and claimed without evidence that the election was a "fraud" and demanded all counts be stopped.

Such a move would be illegal and top Republicans across the country condemned the president's words.

However, if the counts were stopped it would have almost certainly have meant Mr Trump had secured his reelection because more of his supporters chose to vote in person on the day rather than earlier.

Pre-Election Day polling indicated that a majority of Mr Trump’s supporters had planned to cast their ballot on Election Day, while more than half of Joe Biden’s backers had planned to vote by post.

It seems that Mr Trump is losing ground to Mr Biden as the early votes are counted, but it is yet to be seen if it is enough to flip the states to the Democrats.

The postal service has been in crisis for several months with both political camps accusing the other of attempting to cause problems for mail in votes.

This summer, the agency’s new leader, Louis DeJoy, a major donor to the Republican Party and President Donald Trump, set in motion a series of controversial policy changes that have delayed deliveries nationwide.

Mr Trump has openly admitted he was starving the Postal Service of coronavirus relief money to make it harder for the agency to process ballots.

Despite the huge amount of early votes, polling stations were still busy on the day. Credit: AP

The Postal Service has been sued several times in multiple states over the policy changes and has been handed a series of bruising court decisions blocking them.

One judge in Washington state called them “a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service” before the election.

Issues with the postal service could create a problem when counting votes.

In some key states, mail-in ballots can come in several days after Election Day and still be counted, as long as they are postmarked by then.

Democrats have argued that the flood of absentee ballots and slow postal service in some areas makes such a precaution necessary.

For example, mail-in ballots from Nevada voters are not due until November 10 if postmarked before Election Day.

In North Carolina, mail-in ballots were not due until November 12 if postmarked by Election Day.Both states are still currently too close to call.

Mr Trump has grown frustrated with many of the rules around postal votes and his campaign is likely to launch a legal challenge if any of the key states are decided by postal votes.