Why Did U.S. Midterm Vote Counting Seem to Take So Long This Year?

Abigail Abrams
The senator responded by punching the 17-year-old in the face

After all the buildup to an election Day that saw the highest midterm turnout in a century, to wait days or weeks to find out who won a race is painful. It’s also routine.

In the wake of the Nov. 6 elections, Arizona’s Senate race, Georgia’s gubernatorial race and Florida’s Senate and gubernatorial races went into overtime as local boards of election dived into the painstaking process of tabulating votes. But it was in Florida where things got the most heated, and the state illustrates how a process that’s working normally can attract attention that makes it seem strange.

Frustration over a lack of transparency in vote counting in two big counties sparked the ire of Florida Governor Rick Scott, who was leading in his race for the Senate. He argued, without evidence, that “unethical liberals” were trying to “steal this election.” President Donald Trump picked up the claims, tweeting out conspiracy theories and baseless accusations that ballots counted late were “massively infected.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio and the National Republican Senatorial Committee also weighed in, raising questions about the election process in the state.

Florida’s own election monitors found no evidence of fraud, while the Florida department of law enforcement said it had received no reports of illegal activity. A circuit-court judge then told lawyers for both sides to “ramp down the rhetoric.”

Election experts say it’s true that Broward and Palm Beach counties have had some problems in the past with handling the elections and slow ballot counting. But that’s completely different than the fraud Republicans were alleging.

In fact, states all over the country count ballots beyond Election Day, and reforms enacted after Florida’s agonizing recount in the 2000 presidential election actually made this situation more common. Edward Foley, director of the election-law program at the Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, says those post-2000 changes allowed more voters to cast provisional ballots and encouraged the wider use of absentee and mail-in ballots. Counting those ballots just takes a bit longer.

“That’s now built into the system,” Foley tells TIME. “It’s an accidental by-product of positive reforms.”

Throwing around allegations of voter fraud is not new territory for Trump. He previously claimed, without evidence, that Texas Senator Ted Cruz “illegally stole” the Iowa caucus, warned that the 2016 general election would be “rigged,” then trumpeted the unfounded claim that millions of people voted illegally when he lost the popular-vote count.

David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, says such claims can have effects that last much longer than any vote tally. “It’s really damaging,” he says. “This idea that elections are just a political game to be played by adversaries is not healthy for democracy.”

–ABIGAIL ABRAMS