Counting absentee ballots - what's the straight dope?

I keep hearing that absentee ballots don’t get counted - unless the day-of ballots are close enough that the absentee ballots might actually change the result.

Say, McCain got 550,000 votes, Obama got 600,000 on November 4th. If there were only 10,000 absentee ballots, there’s no way they could affect the outcome, so why bother counting them (I’m ignoring other races / ballot initiatives for the sake of simplicity). Whereas if there were 60,000 absentee ballots, that might give McCain 610,000 votes, which would affect the election, so they must be counted.

I tried googling this yesterday and got nothing definitive. Specifically for Virginia, but the best I got was a non-official website saying “contrary to rumors, absentee ballots do count”.

Any links to official sites (Virginia or other states) which address this would be read with great interest.


According to the New York City Board of Elections (.pdf Statement on Election Night Tallies), all absentee and affidavit ballots are counted during the official Board of Elections recanvass of the votes that takes place shortly after election day. They are not included in the preliminary totals reported on election night via the NYPD and released to the media.

Virginia State Election laws for absentee ballots appears to be governed by title 24.2-700 through 713.

More specifically, 24.2-712 is the guidelines for counting the ballots.

In fact, here in Minnesota, they are distributed to the actual precinct where the voter lives, and run through the same counting machine as all the other ballots. After voting, like in a recount (which we are going to have in Minnesota), they can’t even tell the absentee ballots apart from the regular ones. They all look the same when they are taken out of the machine box to be recounted.

Anybody got a cite for California too? I heard the same thing from my mom (who probably got it from my sister) and refused to believe it.

"All valid vote-by-mail ballots are counted in every election in California, regardless of the outcome or closeness of any race. For additional canvass of the vote information please visit our web site at"

From this page:

It would only make sense. Nowadays, about 40% of all ballots are vote-by-mail, so there’s no way to tell whether a race is close or not unless they count those ballots.


Thanks, that’s exactly what I was thinking when I heard it.

Ah - reading through the legalese, it looks like all such votes are indeed counted, at the close of polls, just as if they were cast in person at a regular precinct. Thanks!

If the election is close one canidate or both may send someone to question absentee ballots.

First the county registar checks the envlopes to see if they are correct. At this time one or the other canidate can question the envelope. This person is dead, does not live at that address, voted already, or what ever. the questionable envlopes are set aside.

Then all the others are opened and seperated from their envelopes. Then they are counted. If there is no objection on the remaining they are either processed or disregarded.

If there is an objection the county registar will check out the complaint to see if it is valid. If the complaint is valid they are set aside. If it is invalid complaint the envelope is processed.

I know this was the method used a number of years ago and I assume it would be somewhat the same.